4.1 Article - The Rhythm of English


In English, there is more or less equal distance between each stressed syllable, rather than each syllable. That means if we add unstressed words (e.g. prepositions, articles etc.) in between stressed words, the extra words do not affect the time. So in the graph below all four sentences will take the same time to say, because each sentence only has four stressed syllables (the numbers).

1 2 3 4
1 and            2 and            3 and            4
1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4

Time   ---------------------------------------->



Because we need to accommodate prepositions, articles etc. in between strong words but not increase the time, we have to make them weak. This is why we use a sound called the schwa sound /ə/ a lot.  It also means that we drop letters and link words together very quickly.  This can make listening in English very difficult and is why English is called a stress-timed language.

Syllable timing

Many other language have what is known as a syllable-timed rhythm. What does this mean exactly? Well let's take Spanish as an example. Syllables take about the same time as each other to produce (stressed syllables marked in bold).

mi- ra                             look

a-   yu-    da                   “help”

im- por–   tan - te           “important”


This is true for all kinds of words, including prepositions, articles, pronouns etc.

mi- ra       lo                      look at it

te    a-      yu-   das           "Can I help you”

im- por–   tan-  te      a     “important to”



If your first language is not Spanish, is it syllable timed or stressed timed? How do you find listening in English? Does your first language have an effect on how well you listen to English?

Last modified: Sunday, 17 June 2018, 1:38 PM