Usually in a phrase composed of an adjective followed by a noun, the noun gets the most stress, and in a phrasal verb like (go on, sit down, stand up) the preposition gets the most stress. However today I was reading in a book about American accent that for the sake of sentence balance, the stress can shift to the first element without changing the meaning. The stress change indicates that it's not the end of the sentence, but rather, there is more to come.

Example of the first scenario from a story (words in bold are stressed):

There is a little girl. Her name is Goldilocks. She is in a sunny forest. She sees a small house. She knocks on the door, but no one answers. She goes inside. In the large room, there are three chairs. Goldilocks sits on the biggest chair, but it is too high.

Example after paraphrasing of the same story:

There is a little girl called Goldilocks. She is walking through a sunny forest and sees a small house. She knocks on the door, but no one answers. She goes inside to see what's there. There are three chairs in the large room. Goldilocks sits on the biggest chair. It's too high for her to sit on.

To what extent is this accurate? Is it real when I shift the stress to the adjective in the second scenario, the meaning don't change as my book says?

And I quote from the book

"One of the most fascinating things about spoken English is how the intonation prepares the listener for what is coming. As you know, the main job of intonation is to announce new information. However, there is a secondary function, and that is to alert the listener of changes down the road. Certain shifts will be dictated for the sake of sentence balance. Set phrases and contrast don't change, but the intonation of a descriptive phrase will move from the second word to the first, without changing the meaning. The stress change indicates that it's not the end of the sentence, but rather, there is more to come. This is why it is particularly important to speak in phrases, instead of word by word."

  • Welcome to ELU. You’ve asked a good question but you’ve changed more than one variable between examples: stresses (in bold) and word order. Are you asking only about stresses? Or also word order?
    – Pam
    Sep 24, 2018 at 17:48
  • No, my question is only about the stress and whether the meaning really doesn't change. The change in word order in the second scenario is only to make the sentences longer. These both texts were copied and pasted here from my book that used them as examples to clarify the point.
    – user315529
    Sep 24, 2018 at 17:52
  • Is there anything that makes you think it would? Or any other reason to doubt your book? Stresses can sometimes be lost between the spoken and written word, and with them sometimes subtle meaning. But the examples shown lack subtle meaning.
    – Pam
    Sep 24, 2018 at 17:58
  • I understand according to my book for example shifting the stress to little, three in the second scenario doesn't necessarily give these adjectives extra emphasis or importance but only it's for the sake of sentence balance and to indicate there is more to come.. This is about American accent in case there is a distinction here from other accents.
    – user315529
    Sep 24, 2018 at 17:58
  • 1
    I think you might mean speech "cadence".
    – Pam
    Sep 24, 2018 at 18:01

1 Answer 1


As far as I can tell, the rather opaque paragraph you cited concerns a terminal versus non-terminal intonation contour, the latter signalling the end of a declarative sentence and the former a cue that something more is to follow. What is confusing about the paragraph is that whether a phrase is descriptive or not is irrelevant and, as you seem to have understood it, that the intonation phrase involved in this pattern does not suddenly stress syllables and words in some odd fashion contrary to how it otherwise would be spoken.

For instance, in the sentence

He wanted to vacation in the Bahamas.

the word Bahamas has a falling intonation contour, i.e. a slight drop in pitch, focussing on the lexically stressed second syllable -ha- falling to -mas.

In contrast,

He wanted to vacation in the Bahamas, but decided to go to the Yucatan instead.

Here the terminal intonation contour focusses on the syllable -stead. The syllable -ha- in Bahamas, however is spoken with a slightly higher pitch, falling slightly to -mas, i.e., a nonterminal intonation contour.

In a question,

He wanted to vacation in the Bahamas?

at least the last syllable of Bahamas has to have a rising contour, spoken at a higher pitch.

You might stress “little girl” rather than “little girl” in the following contexts:

She wasn’t a little girl, but rather tall for her age. (stress preparing for the contrasting statement).

That Little girl keeps calling. (Little is understood as a surname.)

Thus if you say “a (L)ittle girl called Goldilocks,” then people might think you’re talking about a girl named Goldilocks Little.

So, no, changing stress about does change the meaning, or completely obscures it.

  • Thank you a lot. The author wasn't talking about intonation contour since it's a totally different chapter in the book. I had doubts because I read much about intonation from many sources but this idea introduced here was new to me and no one has ever mentioned it. I understand that if you read the second text, you would not stress the adjectives in bold if you don't wanna give them extra emphasis and thus meaning, but will you still not stress the first part of the phrasal verbs walking, goes if you read this story naturally and neutrally and you don't wanna give them extra emphasis?
    – user315529
    Sep 25, 2018 at 4:31
  • 1
    Walking has no more stress than it would naturally warrant; -side of inside has more stress than goes.
    – KarlG
    Sep 25, 2018 at 11:06

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