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Content vs Function Words

The disticntion between content words and function words is one of the key aspects of English stress and connected speech.

Content words are those which carry clear meaning, such as:

MAIN VERBS: go, speak, think
NOUNS: house, word, idea
ADJECTIVES: big, difficult, interesting
ADVERBS: slowly, clearly, quite

Function words are grammatical words that glue a sentence together, such as:

AUXILIARY VERBS: are, have, can
PREPOSITIONS: to, from, for
CONJUNCTIONS: and, but, if
PRONOUNS: her, I, their
ARTICLES: a/an, the

Content & Function Words in Connected Speech

In connected speech, function words tend to be pronounced as weak forms with one of the weak vowels /ə,ɪ,i,u/.

If a function word is stressed, it will be pronounced with a strong vowel sound, meaning that many function words have 2 possible pronunciations: a weak version, and a strong version. These are shown for some function words below:

EXAMPLE /Strong,Weak/

are /ɑː,ə/
have /hav,(h)əv/
were /wəː,wə/
to /tuː,tə/
for /fɔː,fə/
but /bʌt,bət/
been /biːn,bɪn/
he /hiː,(h)i/

Sentence Stress

In a sentence consisting of content and function words, the content words are typically stressed, and the function words are typically weak:

Are we going to the shops?

However, stress is always related to meaning, so the above sentence could have stress on ‘we’ and not on the two content words:

Are we going to the shops?

In this example, the concept of ‘going to the shops’ is already in the conversation and the focus of the meaning is on ‘we’. The strong pronunciation of the function word is then used.