Tonic Stress Made Simple

Event date: 
Saturday, February 17, 2018 - 16:00
Pronunciation: The Missing Link
University of Chester, Parkgate Campus
Extra info: 
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Tonic Stress Made Simple -

Tonic stress is a speaker’s use of emphasis to focus a listener’s attention. It’s an aspect of the speaking skill which is often neglected, but is crucial signalling the connections between ideas in both monologues and dialogues. Here’s a quick example:

To be // or not to be

Hamlet probably places tonic stress on not  to signal a contrast in the 2nd part of the phrase. Just imagine how incoherent it would sound if he placed the stress on any of the other words in that segment! It’s tempting to think that appropriate tonic stress is a luxury, that we can make ourselves understood without it, but it does cause confusion and misunderstandings. Imagine the phrase above pronounced as ‘2B or not Toby’.

A Neglected Skill

So why is tonic stress neglected in class? Perhaps it is because, paradoxically, tonic stress can seem too obvious and too complex at the same time. Too obvious because the idea of putting emphasis on the most important word in a chunk appears so intuitive as to not need teaching. Too complex because you can’t begin to explain which word is the most important one without first specifying a lot of contextual variables.

Too Obvious?

It turns out that although tonic stress might seem obvious to English teachers, it is less so for many learners. Many languages do not use stress meaningfully, or at least not in the same way. They may achieve similar nuances by changing word order instead, for example – this option exists in English too. For learners from such language backgrounds, it can be very difficult to perceive which word is stressed, let alone produce it, and do so meaningfully. Learners who can’t perceive tonic stress may be sceptical about its importance, or even its very existence. Teaching them to use it will involve first convincing them that it exists and is worth learning.

Too Complex?

At the other extreme, tonic stress can seem too complex because there are no easy rules. Speakers can stress any syllable they like – it all depends on context. But if a student wants to know which word to stress, the teacher can’t simply say, ‘It depends’. The teacher will need to explain how it depends – concretely, which word to stress in which context. In practice, in class, this discussion of context can end up like ‘pulling teeth’ – a lot of pain for very little gain. No wonder then that many teachers prefer to leave tonic stress and hope it gets picked up by osmosis over the long run.

Making Simple

I would suggest that in order to teach tonic stress, we need to ‘make simple’, and we need to do so on two levels – the physical ability and the mental understanding. Physically, learners need practice in perceiving and producing stress on different words in a given utterance. This can be in the form of drills or workouts, initially – we can postpone focus on meaning. In terms of understanding, learners need to know which word to stress for what purpose. To this end, classroom materials and tasks need to be carefully planned: context needs to be implied in the most economical way possible, and the relationship between a given context and stressing a given word needs to be expressible as a simple rule.

The Talk

In my plenary talk at the PronSig event in Chester on Feb 17th, I will suggest strategies for ‘making simple’ when teaching tonic stress in class. We will also take a look at how tonic stress relates to intonation more generally, and how it relates to word stress. The slide show can be downloaded below. Here's a link to the video of the lecture about viruses.


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