American English Accent Pronunciation Tip: Heteronym Pairs

Definition of Heteronym

Many fluent speakers of English as a second language experience trouble with pronouncing heteronyms.  There’s a quick way to learn the pronunciations.  Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker & Lynda Katz-Wilner, authors of  Rules for Using Linguistic Elements of Speech: A Resource and Interactive Workbook, provide straightforward information for mastering pronunciation of heteronyms.  Heteronym pairs are word pairs that are spelled the same way but differ by part of speech, word meaning, and pronunciation stress.

Heteronym Pairs as Homophones

Words that are spelled the same way are called homographs.  One word in the heteronym pair is either a noun/adjective and one word in the pair is a verb. Although the pairs are spelled the same way, they are pron0unced differently.  The difference is on which syllable you place stress.

Noun & Verb Syllable Stress

If the word is a noun, stress the first syllable.  Say the syllable with a higher, louder, longer voice.  If the word is a verb, stress the second syllable.

Three Syllable Words


There are three types of stress in three-syllable verbs.  If a verb has three syllables, place the most stress on the first syllable, less stress (secondary stress) on the third syllable, and the least stress (weak stress) on the second syllable. Notice that the syllable in the middle gets the least stress. Remember “Most, least, secondary.”  “Most” means most stress.  “Least” means least stress.  “Secondary” means stress between most and least.

Nouns & Adjectives

Nouns and adjectives have primary stress on the first syllable, with short, unstressed second and third syllables.  The last/third syllable often changes pronunciation.  For example, the verb “graduate” is pronounced as GRAD-u-ATE (most, least, secondary).  The bold capitalized syllable gets the most stress.  The small unbolded syllable gets the least stress.  The third/last capitalized syllable gets the secondary stress (between the most and least stress).  The noun “graduate” is pronounced as GRAD-u-it.  Notice that the third/last syllable is pronounced as “it” for the noun and “ate” for the verb.

Heteronym Pair Exercises

Read the sentences below and decide which stress pattern should be used for each sentence.  Then say the sentence aloud.


I bought produce at the store (Noun: PRO-duce)

I needed to produce the report by the end of today (Verb: pro-DUCE)


I’ll duplicate this section of the report (Verb: DU-pli-CATE)

I need a duplicate of this document (DU-pli-CATE)

Pronunciation of Heteronyms: Summary

There are pronunciation rules for word pairs that are spelled the same but are different parts of speech (one is a noun or adjective and the other is a verb).  Knowing these rules can help you be better understood and help you eliminate the need to repeat yourself.

Happy heteronym pronouncing!

Source: Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker & Lynda Katz-Wilner.  Rules for Using Linguistic Elements of Speech. Owings Mills: Successfully Speaking, 2006, 2007, 2nd Edition. Print.


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Cher GundersonFebruary 16th, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Nicole, I am glad you found the information on pronouncing stress in heteronym pairs beneficial. Thank you for your kind remarks. I am curious; what is your native language?

To your communication success,


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