13 Prominence: Overview

Prominence, also referred to as “focus,” “phrase stress,” and “primary phrase stress”, describes the pronunciation adjustments English speakers make to focus listeners’ attention on whichever word(s) most contributes to communicating what they are trying to say. For example, when a parent asks a teenager “You did WHAT???”

Prominence Refers to How English Speakers:

  1. Lengthen the primary stressed vowel in the key words of their message, and,
  2. Pronounce these key words at a higher or lower pitch than other less meaningful words.

In spoken English, prominence has the same function as a highlighter does in written English. You would not highlight an entire page of information, but rather key terms or ideas. Prominence plays this same role, but is done so a bit more often. Typically, prominence will find its way into almost every spoken thought group — which word is the most important or adds new information?

Three Key Roles Prominence Play in Spoken English

  1. Highlight new or important information
  2. To show special or extreme emphasis
  3. Contrastive stress

The first category is perhaps the most common use of prominence. This prominence is always used on a content word, and it’s used to highlight the most important word(s) in your utterance.

Our earlier example, “You did WHAT???”, falls under the second category. It is not necessarily that the listener did not hear what the speaker said, but rather they could not believe what they heard.

The final category is perhaps the trickiest. Depending on the word which receives prominence in an utterance, the meaning of the utterance can change quite drastically. Take the following for example:

  1. I am watching.
  2. I am watching.
  3. I am watching.

Can you think of when you might use each of these prominence locations?

Number 1 might be used if someone wants to know what you’re doing. For example, if the question is Who’s watching?, you may respond with the prominence of Number 1.

Number 2 might be used to correct someone. If someone asked you Why aren’t you watching?, you may respond with Number 2 to correct the speaker. Contrary to the speaker’s opinion, you are watching.

Number 3 is perhaps the most common of the three, in that it is simply informing someone of what you are doing. For the question What are you doing?, you may respond with Number 3.

Typical Prominence

Prominence typically falls on the last word of a sentence or phrase if it is a noun, adjective, or verb (except “BE”).

  • Nouns:
    • Where are you from?
    • I’m from Spain.
    • Is she the teacher?
    • No, she’s a student.
  • Adjectives:
    • He is nice.
    • She is very pretty.
  • Verbs:
    • Where is he going?
    • I don’t know.
    • What are you doing?
    • I’m swimming.



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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.