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This is a question about sentence stress.

The example is taken from a unit of Michael Vaughan's "Test your Pronunciation". The Unit is entitled "Predicting highlighting shift in dialogue".

Here is the example dialogue in question. It starts as follows (in CAPS, the stressed words as you can hear it):

  • A: WHERE did you put the potatoes?
    • B: Where do you THINK I put the potatoes? There's only one place TO put them."

The key section of the book and the audio show that the word "to" is stressed.

So I am wondering:
- Why is "to" stressed?
- What meaning and emotion or rhetorical function does the stressing of "to" convey precisely?
- Why is not the word "one (place)" stressed instead? (the key section does not highlight neither)

I had expected to hear speaker B stress "one (place)", as if he said: "there's only one place and you know which one it is".

The audio example is in standard British English: Is this a British peculiarity?

I hope you can help me find the right answer. I haven't been able to find an answer to this on the internet, nor does the book provide an explanation.

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It's not just BrE, the same pattern is common in AmE. Emphasizing the "to" in this sentence has a nuance I would describe like this. If someone was questioning why you put the potatoes there and they should already be aware that there was no other place to put them, you might want to go beyond simply stating that it was the only choice. Stressing the "to" is dismissive of the question, itself, like expressing mild annoyance. It's a little like saying "OF COURSE there was no other place they could have been put, you idiot!"

"To" is related to the question "where", so perhaps that focus, and the fact that it is the least important word in the sentence, would be my speculation as to why it has that implied meaning. But that's a total guess.

  • I like your interpretation and I had a similar inkling about this: speaker B sounds obviously annoyed. Can you or others give me another example where an analogous stress occurs on a function word? And I am wondering: Is there a note of irony or sarcasm involved in this stress pattern too? – Ashwin Schumann May 24 '17 at 18:14
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    @AshwinS, After dinner, wife to husband: "Please grab the glass on the table." Husband: "This glass?" Wife: "YES, that glass. There's no other glass ON the table!." I guess this could be characterized as a form of sarcasm. – fixer1234 May 24 '17 at 18:40

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