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Can the number and position of non-primary stresses vary depending on the sentence it appears in?

E.g. assuming the word catastrophe, in RP, has a stress on the second syllable

/kəˈtastrəfi/

Can we sometimes stress the 2nd and 3rd, sometimes the 2nd and 4th, and sometimes just the 2nd? Depending on the sentence it appears in.

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    Do you mean "When i say a word, am I allowed to put the stress on a different syllable than usual?". If so then yes, it's a free country, you can pronounce it however you want. It will tend to sound odd though. – Max Williams Apr 4 '16 at 10:56
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    i'm not sure poetry is "artistic license". i'm interested in isochrony is why i ask – concerned Apr 4 '16 at 10:56
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    Certainly the stresses, tones, and timings placed on individual syllables change as the context of the word changes, though most people are quite unaware of this, except perhaps when it is done for emphasis. (But the sentences would sound weirdly mechanical if this was not done.) – Hot Licks Apr 4 '16 at 12:22
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    One of the things that can reduce the number of syllables (and therefore stressed syllables) is using long stress groups: He's a doctor, He's a good doctor, He's a very good doctor, He's an extremely good doctor, all said in the same amount of time (English is stress-timed). Naturally, this results in many fewer stresses. – John Lawler Apr 4 '16 at 17:47
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    If you have a word with secondary stress on the last syllable, like catastrophe, whether you put secondary stress on that syllable can depend on whether the next syllable in the sentence is stressed. For example, you probably wouldn't put much stress on -phe in "The catastrophe happened last night", but you might in "The catastrophe in the arctic". But you wouldn't change the position of any secondary stress. – Peter Shor Apr 5 '16 at 16:43
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Yes; this is unsurprisingly called secondary stress.

From Teflpedia:

Secondary stress

Long words may have an extra stress, the second most stressed syllable in the word.

The secondary stress is marked with a small lowered vertical line preceding the stressed syllable: information /ˌɪnfərˈmeɪʃən/, understand /ˌʌndərˈstænd/, represent /ˌreprɪˈzent/.

Words with secondary stress are pronounced as if they were two different words, and one of them has the primary stress: infor-mation, under-stand, repre-sent. If a word has two secondary stresses it is pronounced as three small words: onomatopoeia /ˌɒnəˌmætəˈpiːə/ ono-mato-poeia; heterosexuality /ˌhetərəˌsekʃuːˈælətɪ/ hetero-sexu-ality.

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    the question has been altered so it's not what i was asking – concerned Apr 4 '16 at 11:34
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Does the sentence change the position and number of stresses in a word?

Stress is primarily a function of the word. Specifically, the meaning of the word. The sentence simply helps us decode which meaning the word represents.

There are many two-syllable words in English whose meaning and class change with a change in stress. The word present, for example is a two-syllable word. If we stress the first syllable, it is a noun (gift) or an adjective (opposite of absent). But if we stress the second syllable, it becomes a verb (to offer). More examples: the words export, import, contract and object can all be nouns or verbs depending on whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.

englishclub: word stress rules

Stress can also be a function of who is speaking.

For a few words, native English speakers don't always "agree" on where to put the stress. For example, some people say teleVIsion and others say TELevision. Another example is: CONtroversy and conTROversy.

englishclub: word stress rules

Context can make a difference. Such as when you're stressing every syllable for someone who's having trouble hearing you.


Can we sometimes stress the 2nd and 3rd, sometimes the 2nd and 4th, and sometimes just the 2nd?

Depends what you mean by and. At the same time in the same word? No.

One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.)

englishclub: word stress rules

However, there is certainly no rule that says stress must always be on the 1st syllable.

And indeed, you can put the stress anywhere, just to be silly.

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    This idea that the secondary stress is much smaller than the primary stress sounds like you're reading websites written by U.K. speakers (and checking, indeed you are). In AmE, secondary stresses can be quite large (e.g., military). – Peter Shor Apr 4 '16 at 13:14
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    @Peter Shor Here too. The statement is too sweeping. I'd go so far as to say that there are words with double primary stress; decontamination at the very least can come close. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 '16 at 23:24
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There are many two-syllable words stressed on the first syllable for a noun usage, or on the second syllable for the verb sense...

address noun – the location of a building
address verb – to write down an address OR to speak to a group of people
compound noun – something made of two or more parts
compound verb – to combine or add
contest noun – a game or event of competition
contest verb – to challenge or dispute
contract noun – a written agreement
contract verb – to make smaller in size
etc., etc.

I got that list from this Wordpress blog. I can think of one case where the shift is from noun (arithmetic) to adjective (arithmetic), and there's also unionized (labour relations; organised into a union) and unionized (chemistry; not ionised). Offhand though, I can't think of any word where the meaning changes according to the number of stressed syllables.

As @Peter points out below, there are cases such as Rainier (the mountain) with two syllables, where rainier (more rainy) has three syllables. But those are really two different words with different origins, rather that the same word with different meanings according to enunciation.


But I get the impression OP is actually asking if he can "creatively" vary stress patterns in order to effect a change in meaning. To a first approximation I'd have to say No, you can't do that!

Dictionary pronunciation guides excepted, we don't normally indicate the stress orthographically, so you'd need to be in a spoken medium anyway - and unless your audience were primed to expect "meaningfully non-standard delivery" (a poetry reading from a respected writer, perhaps), they'd probably just assume you weren't a very competent speaker.

  • I'm taking up your implicit challenge. Rainier (the mountain) has two syllables, while rainier (meaning more rainy) has three syllables. – Peter Shor Apr 4 '16 at 13:22
  • @Peter: ty - I knew I could count on someone! (as also implied, I'll add that to the answer). But as with unionized, we're talking about two different words - what I'd really like is an example where it's essentially the same word (manifestly having the same etymology, at the very least). I think it's quite possible there are such words. I recall arguing with my English teacher as a teenager I because I thought 3-syllable caTHOLic meant "diverse", as opposed to 2-syllable CAtholic being "of the RC church". I lost the argument, obviously, but I still wish I'd been right! – FumbleFingers Apr 4 '16 at 13:52
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    Beloved is usually pronounced with 2 syllables as the attributive adjective and often with 3 as the noun. Will Styler comments. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 4 '16 at 23:09
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    i'm not sure if you (or anyone) really answered this question. i'm not asking if i can vary the stress patterns of words as i choose, but whether non-primary stress can vary according to the sentence – concerned Apr 5 '16 at 11:17

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