I hadn’t really had anything I felt like writing about for a couple of days, but then Mike sent me this email:

Obviously we don’t have accent marks in English. Is
this because we have more complex rules or is there no
way to tell exactly how a word is said based solely on
how it’s written?

Thanks, Mike. Now, I know exactly what I want to write about. There is no way to tell which syllable in an English word is stressed from its written form. Please don’t tell any of my first semester students about that or about the existence of the schwa, though. It would dash their hopes that English phonics is “easy”. I do spend some time teaching intermediate students about stressed syllables, though. There are actually cases in which one spelling maps to two words, which have different syllables stressed and are different parts of speech.


It’s kind of a neat little phenomenon, but it makes it impossible to know which syllable to stress just from seeing a written word. I’m sure you’ll start to notice many more pairs of words like these, now that you’re aware of them. I’ll save the rest of your email and your second question for the next post.