Have you been learning English for several years but still find it hard to understand the natural English of first language  speakers? Do you still need subtitles to watch TV shows and movies in English because you feel you only understand 50% of what you’re hearing? Well, you’re not alone. Learners around the globe say that what they need to improve most from their list of skills is listening. Today we are going to explore something called sentence stress in English so that you can find it easier to understand native speakers.

After all, real life doesn’t have subtitles!

You really need to work on your listening skills!


Why is Listening so hard?

Previously we have seen that English is not phonetic, and that the spelling of words does not necessarily correspond to how they are pronounced.

We also saw in a previous post is that there are two categories of words in English: Content words & Function words. In terms of pronunciation, the key content words (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, names, numbers etc) are generally said with greater stress and clarity. On the other hand, the grammatical words (prepositions, articles, pronouns,’To be’ verbs, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs ) are weakened with the vowel sound schwa /ə/  in order to give more prominence to the key words. This alternation between emphasised words and deemphasised words in a phrase is commonly known as sentence stress.


Sentence stress in English

I went to the lobby and I waited for a call from Roy


The most important words which are key to the message are emphasised.

I went to the lobby and I waited for a call from Roy


If we eliminate the words that are not emphasised, we could still understand the message. Right?


went lobby waited call Roy


Although we cannot say for certain, it might be possible to predict the missing words.


As we can see, we stress the content words, while the words which have been eliminated become weak forms because they are less important in order to convey the main message.


You can hear that most of the unstressed words are pronounced with the schwa sound /ə/.  At the same time, the first word ‘I‘ sounds like ‘a‘, while the two-word cluster ‘and I’  sounds more like ‘ana‘:

a went tə ðə lobby ana waited fərə call frəm Roy

Function words can also have a strong form

A word will only have a weak form when it is unstressed.  In the following example the function words are stressed for the purpose of emphasis and contrast and are therefore heard in the strong form.



No, not him, her!


I do like it


Some common weak forms

Do         /də/ To             /tə/ And    /ənd, ən, n̩/
Are      /ə(r)/ For         /fə(r)/ But     /bət/
Was    /wəz/ From     /frəm/ You    /jə/
Can    /kən/ Of          /ə(v)/ Your   /jə(r)/
Must /məs(t)/ At           /əd/ A         /ə/


Let’s have a look at 3 examples:

1. DO

Do you live here?


2. TO

I like to dance


3. FOR

For you, for your family, for your father


So, if you want to improve your listening skills and English pronunciation, we strongly suggest you deactivate the subtitles on your TV and pay closer attention to how function words are weakened in spoken English. This way you’ll be training your ear to become an expert, proactive listener!