This is part of an occasional series showcasing the wacky crazy and lovable world of the English language.
I’m a native English speaker. I also have a degree in English, and I have a teaching certification in English and English as a Second or Other Language. I also teach English pronunciation. To make things worse, I read a lot – in English. English is kind of my jam (something I enjoy a lot).
I also have to laugh at the crazy things about English that I “know” as a teacher/speaker/reader/etc., but that I forget about until they’re right in my face (made very obvious).
In any language, sentence stress is important. That’s definitely true in English. Knowing what words to stress in a sentence can make a huge difference in how well you’re understood when speaking.
Now, usually, when we say a sentence, we stress the most important words in that sentence. The general rules are:
Content words are stressed. These are the words that actually give the sentence its meaning. Those are generally the main verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and negative words.
Structure words are unstressed. These are the words that make the sentence grammatically correct. Those are generally pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary (or helping) verbs.
For example, if someone said, BUY CAR GOOD SALE, you can infer what they mean – they want you to buy a car because there’s a good sale – BUY a CAR, there’s a GOOD SALE going on. The other words are mainly to make the sentence grammatically correct.
Well, don’t get too comfortable.
You can actually change the meaning of a sentence just by changing what words you stress!
Let’s take a relatively simple sentence, “She didn’t say he stole her car.”
Now, if you were just saying this sentence with the normal stresses, it would be (approximately): “she DIDN’T SAY he STOLE her CAR.”
By changing the emphasis (or stress) on different words, you can change this from a simple sentence with one meaning, to one with seven different meanings.
SHE didn’t say he stole her car – someone else said it
She DIDN’T say he stole her car – that was not what she said
She didn’t SAY he stole her car – she implied it but she didn’t say it
She didn’t say HE stole her car – she said someone did, not necessarily him
She didn’t say he STOLE her car – she considered it borrowed, even though he didn’t ask her
She didn’t say he stole HER car – she only said that he stole a car
She didn’t say he stole her CAR – he stole other things, but the car wasn’t one of them
All right, technically the meaning of the sentence is the same, it’s the inference that changes. However, the change in stress adds more to the sentence than the words themselves mean.