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The word accent is sometimes used to mean stress, in its phonetic applications. (In this Guide, we prefer to use the word stress to mean the phenomenon in pronunciation, because it is less ambiguous: accent can mean several other things.)

Stress is the phenomenon where one unit is made stronger, more emphatic or more noticeable to someone who hears it. The units can be of different sizes. Every word in a stress-timed language, such as English, that has more than one syllable has at least one stress - that is, one of its syllables is more emphatic than the other(s).

Those of us who have learnt English as our mother tongue have a very deep knowledge of word stress (or accent, in this sense). We can hear and use meaningfully the difference between otherwise identical words - between, for example, 'record' with a stress on its first syllable ('˜WRECK-ord', used as a noun) and 'record' with a stress on its second syllable ('re-CORD', used as a verb). The difference between 'college' and 'collage' is not just the difference between the second vowel, but in the stresses of the two words: '˜COLL-ige' for the place of learning and 'collAHJ' for the sticky picture. In the name of another place of learning, 'University' there are two stresses, a primary stress on the third syllable and a secondary stress on the first: 'you-ni-VERS-it-i', {ˌju nɪ ˈvɜr sɪ tɪ}.

A sentence, too, can have stress - and quite often the use of sentence stress helps us to control its meaning very precisely. For example, the words "John gave this plate to Mary" can be stressed in different ways to communicate different meanings to listeners. "John gave this plate to Mary" (it wasn't someone else who was so generous); "John gave this plate to Mary" (and not to some other girl); "John gave this plate to Mary" (and did not ask her to pay for it); "John gave this plate to Mary" (and he has never shown any interest in tableware before).

  • Patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are the principle of versification in almost all poetry in English This is qualitative metre - for more, and its alternative, see quantitative metre.

Phoneticians argue about what precisely makes an accent, or stress, in a word. It isn't as simple as volume (loudness) or pitch - "though usually perceived as such by lay listeners" (Quirk). At least, no one has yet been able to measure the extent to which these may be systematically different. But in one's native language, one usually knows pretty well how to recognise it - and to use it in one's own speech.