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English Pronunciation: Stress in Common Phrases

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Look at the chart to understand the difference between stress in common or "set" phrases and stress in phrases that are simply descriptive.

Common phrases are cultural and need to be learned. For international people, the differences between common and descriptive phrases may not make sense--at least until you have been in the country and spoken with Americans regularly for some years.

In common phrases, we stress the first word. In descriptive phrases, we usually stress the noun. This means that in common phrases, we think of the two words as one.

This list provides an overview and includes common phrases from household objects to sports terms to idioms in order to show the wide range of common phrases.

Common Phrase
Descriptive Phrase
a pair of blue jeans
a pair of blue jeans a pair of old jeans
a pair of old jeans

a light bulb
a light bulb a red bulb
a red bulb

a potted plant
a potted plant a leafy plant
a leafy plant

a flower garden
a flower garden a small garden
a small garden

a vacuum cleaner
a vacuum cleaner a very good cleaner
a very good cleaner

a paper bag
a paper bag a large bag
a large bag

a plastic bag
a plastic bag a blue bag
a blue bag

a key chain
a key chain a new chain
a new chain

a sports car
a sports car a small car
a small car

a baseball player
a baseball player a new player
a new player

his batting average
his batting average his former average
his former average

the stock market
the stock market the financial market
the financial market

a farmer's market
a farmer's market an interesting market
an interesting market

a department store
a department store a nearby store
a nearby store

a coffee shop
a coffee shop a cozy shop
a cozy shop

an Indian restaurant
an Indian restaurant a good restaurant
a good restaurant

a Thai restaurant
a Thai restaurant a popular restaurant
a popular restaurant

a reality check
a reality check a written check
a new check

a wake-up call
a wake-up call a recent call
a recent call

* The idioms "reality check" and "wake-up call" have almost the same meaning. They mean that something happens which causes you to stop thinking in an ideal or unrealistic way. For instance, if you are in a university class which seems easy and get a D on a test--that's a reality check or a wake-up call. You realize you have to study.

Of course, the stress in descriptive phrases can change if the adjective is very important. However, most of the time, in American English, nouns will represent new and important information--this will be stressed. That is why common phrases show that, culturally, we see the two words as one word--as if the two words represent one big noun.

Notice that you can build from these examples. For instance, "flower garden" can lead to "vegetable garden," "an Indian restaurant" to "an Italian restaurant" and "a wake-up call" to "a phone call." Use this list to help yourself begin thinking of the differences in phrases. Then listen as people talk or as you watch TV and try to hear the stressed words.

Study syllable stress with a video lesson at 500 Common Words Syllable Stress.

Learn 5 rules on stressing words in sentences: Word Stress.

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