Sentence Rhythm

 what is rhythm

 the emphasis pattern of English

 sentence rhythm practice

 sentence focus

 pausing & thought groups



                 Rhythm is timing patterns among syllables.      

 There are basically two types of sentence rhythm in languages:

 "stress-timed rhythm" and "syllables-timed rhythm."


  • Look at the following pictures, the left one represents the stress-timed rhythm, with an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables (adults represent stressed syllables and kids represent unstressed ones), and  the right one represents the syllable-timed rhythm, with nearly equal weight and time in all syllables (identical soldiers represent the same length and weight that each syllable has).


(A) Stress-timed Rhythm 

(B) Syllable-timed Rhythm


Question:   Which picture represents English speech rhythm?
        Read aloud the sentence "pronunciation is important" (9 syllables in the sentence) to help you make a judgment.

        Are there stressed syllables in that sentence?


The question is easy, right? Did you get the answer - pictures (A)?


In picture (A), 2 adults represent the stressed syllable, while 7 children represent unstressed syllables in the sentence "pronunciation is important." The stressed and unstressed syllables go together to make up the English speech rhythm.
However, in picture (B), 9 identical soldiers fail to tell which syllables are stressed and which are not.

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 Do you know which words in English sentences are stressed and which are not?


Basically words can be divided into two categories: content words and structure words. Content words are those which carry the basic meaning of a sentence, such as nouns and verbs. Structure words, also called function words, show grammatical relationship, such as pronouns and prepositions.  In general, content words need to emphasized, while structure words are usually de-emphasized and reduced.

The following chart will help you know the rules better.


The Emphasis Pattern of English

Content words  (emphasized)

  Structure words   (de-emphasized)

  nouns  (cat, book, Mary)   
  main verbs  (make, run, study)  
  adjectives   (good, happy, many) 
  adverbs  (quickly, often, really) 
  question words 
       (who, what, when, where, how, why)
  demonstrative pronouns  
       (this, that, these, those)  

  pronouns     (he, she, it, they) 
  prepositions   (in, on, of, at) 
  articles   (a, an, the) 
  "to-be" verbs   (am, is, are, was) 
  "to-have" verbs   (has, have, had) 
  conjunctions   (and, but, so, since)  
  auxiliary verbs   (do, can, may, will) 


Remember to make the stressed syllables in the emphasized words

louder, longer, clearer, and high-pitched.
      Listen and then read aloud the following sentences with the right stress pattern.

     Examples:      1.  John wants to be an actor, so he wants to live in Hollywood.

                             2.  Mary made an appointment with the dentist on Monday.

                             3.  After the movie, they went to a bar to have beer.
     *** Important Note:

   Negative words and negative "to-be," "to-have," and  auxiliary verbs need to be stressed   
        ( e.g., no,  never,  isn't,  haven't,  can't,   don't,  won't)


      Listening Exercise (A):   Affirmative or negative?

           Listen to the following sentences. Then decide whether you heard is affirmative or negative.

     * Remember if you hear the "to-be" or auxiliary verb is stressed, then the sentence is negative.


1.    I ______ understand your story.

(can, can't)

2.   Tom _______ come to the party tonight.

(can, can't)

3.   They _______ hear the speaker.

(can, can't)

4.   We ______ told to do that.

(were, weren't)

5.   They ______ doing the homework.

(are, aren't)

6.   The students ______ here last night.

(were, weren't)

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Try to say this rhyme first.  See how well you can catch the rhythm.

             Note: Syllables with dark color represent stressed syllables.


                     Hickory Dickory Dock 
                          The mouse ran up the clock

        Then practice saying the following sentences.
        Notice that the rhythm of the sentences is followed the rhythm of the rhyme.


     Hickory Dickory Dock          

   Do it according to plan.                         

   Give me a burger with cheese.              

   Who is the man I should see?    

    Twinkle, twinkle, little star         

  Let me help you find your keys.              

  Don't forget the bread and milk.              

  Tell me why you don't agree.             


 (Grant, 1993, Well said, p.105) 


    The mouse ran up the clock

I'd like to cash a check.

He'd rather take the bus.

I'll have her call you back.  


     How I wonder what you are

Find a space and park your car.

Thanks a lot for all your help.

Don't forget to leave a tip.

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Any word in English can be a focus in a message. You can focus on a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a preposition, or an auxiliary.

    The speaker uses focus to emphasize a certain part of his/her message. The use of focus can indicate the speaker's intended meaning of a message. The focused word needs to be stressed, so it is louder, longer, and higher pitched than other words in a message.

     Look at the examples and find the different emphasis in each sentence:


                     1. John is leaving Paris next week.                (Emphasize the time)
                     2. John is leaving Paris next week.                  (Emphasize the place)
                     3. John is leaving Paris next week.                  (Emphasize the action)
                     4. John is leaving to Paris next week.                (Emphasize the truth)
                     5. John is leaving to Paris next week.             (Emphasize the person)

    Listening exercise (B) :  Listen for focus


               Listen to the following sentences.

                     Find the answer that responds to the most likely meaning of the speaker. Click (A) or (B).


            e.g.      You hear:  I'd like to have a medium pepperoni pizza.
                         You see:  (A) not a large one?
                                          (B) not a sausage?


             Since the focus you hear is on "medium", you choose the answer (A).

               Do you know where to pause in sentences to form thought groups?

               We usually pause
               1. before punctuation marks ( , . ; : ? ! )
               2. before conjunctions  (and, or, but, which, that, since...)
               3. between grammatical units such as phrases, clauses, and sentences.

                       Look at the following example. Try to read this passage with me.

     Once upon a starless midnight / there was an owl / who sat on the branch of an oak tree./   

         Two ground moles / tried to slip by, / unnoticed. / "You!" / said the owl. /

         "Who?" / they quavered, / in fear and astonishment, / for they could not believe /

         it was possible / for anyone to see them / in that thick darkness./ 

                                                                   (from The Owl Who Was God by James Thurber)
  • Thought groups and meaning
Using pauses in different places can give a sentence different meanings.
  • Listen to the following two sentences.

          Can you hear pauses are used in different places between sentence (A) and (B)?
          Can you find the different meanings between two sentences?


    (A) The teacher said, "That student is lazy."           (The teacher was speaking.)
         (B) "The teacher," said that student, "is lazy."        (The student was speaking.)

    Listening Exercise (C):   Listen for thought groups

            Listen to the following sentences. Choose the sentences you heard.  Click (A) or (B).
                  Pay attention to thought groups.

 1.    (A) David said, "That man is very rude!" 
   (B) "David," said that man, "is very rude!"

 ( A , B )

 2.    (A) "Linda believes," I said, "that Jim's story's true." 
   (B) Linda believes I said that Jim's story's true.

 ( A , B )

 3.    (A) Mike sold his house, boat, and car. 
   (B) Mike sold his houseboat and car.

 ( A , B )

 4.    (A) Wooden matches are used to start fire. 
   (B) Wood and matches are used to start fire.

 ( A , B )


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word stress
sentence rhythm