Where does the stress go in the phrase “the only one”?

There is a useful rule that says that, whenever you have the word one  after an adjective, the word that carries the stress is the adjective and the pronoun one is deaccented. This is what happens in the following examples:

Would you like the RED one or the GREEN one?

My car broke down again. I’m going to buy a NEW one.

There are a few expressions, however, which don’t follow the rule. Against the general principle, in the phrase the only one, the stress is placed on one instead of only.

I was very lucky this morning because I chanced upon a very good example of this phenomenon on BBC4, which made my day. Now I can share it with you:

sound_loud_speaker But, he’s not the only ONE, though. You’ll see in the show his paintings are alongside pictures by his followers and contemporaries (Letizia Treves, BBC4).

The only one is not the only case in which this happens. According to J.C. Wells (English Intonation, Cambridge. Great book!), the same accentuation pattern is found in the right one, the wrong one, the first one and the last one.

So, we would say:

She was the first ONE to see it. or

I don’t like that hat you’re wearing. You bought the wrong ONE.

Stress is a slippery matter sometimes indeed!


It all boils down to stress

Many phonologists have pointed out that, in achieving intelligibility, the correct placing of stress is actually more important than the accuracy of the sounds we utter. The eminent A.C. Gimson exemplified this by saying that if in a restaurant we want to ask for potatoes and say something like beDEdos, the waiter is likely to understand no matter how deformed our vowels are, but if we moved the stress onto the first syllable and ordered BOdedos or BEdedos, he would be puzzled.

Let’s try:

sound_loud_speaker May I have some bededos, please? Sure! It’ll be right up!

sound_loud_speaker May I have some bededos, please? What the heck is that???

It is clear that keeping the correct stress pattern is vital for making yourself understood in English. Gimson and others thought so and therefore they concluded that the teaching of stress –that is, where the stress goes in words and sentences- has to be a high priority in English class.

I couldn’t agree more. And, as I see so many mistakes being made by Spanish speakers which are all down to the wrong placement of stress, I would like to contribute some comments to flesh out the idea.

Vowel quality

The first effect stress has is to determine the quality of the vowels in a word. Let’s see this famous example:

sound_loud_speaker photograph /ˈfəʊtəgrɑːf/

sound_loud_speaker photography /fəˈtɒgrəfi/

sound_loud_speaker photographic /ˌfəʊtəˈgræfɪk/

We can easily observe how the vowels change on account of the main stress being placed on the first, second or third syllable.

Word Main Stress Sequence of vowel phonemes
Photograph Syllable 1


ə ɑː

Photography Syllable 2


ɒ ə


Photographic Syllable 3


ə æ


For more information about vowel sounds go here.

The conclusion is that to pronounce words correctly in English the first thing you need to know is where the stress goes in that word. And of course this isn’t something you’ll always be able to deduce. On many occasions -a lot of them, actually- you’ll have to look them up in a dictionary.

Typical Spanish mistakes

Even very advanced Spanish speakers of English make a mistake consisting of adopting the Spanish stress pattern of some verbs, which makes their speech sound absolutely non-English and might confuse their interlocutors. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. I’m talking about saying realIZE  instead of REalize  or communiCATE instead of coMMUnicate. Since the words are very similar, we assume that the stress is going to be in the same place. Unfortunately, it isnt’ like that at all.

Overall rhythm of the sentece

It is a well-known fact that keeping the correct rhythm is crucial if we want to sound natural and fluent in English. But this isn’t possible unless we know the stress pattern of individual words. Stressing the wrong syllable mangles the whole of it.

Now the good news!

The wonderful thing about stress is that it’s very easy to correct. The moment you know about it, you start doing it right. There’s nothing really complicated about it. So, the secret lies in that great word, awareness, or even knowledge. Again, knowing about things makes all the difference.

A final tip

Many years ago, I started reading literature in English and, as a writer myself, I was really worried about gettting the right sounds, rhythm and music of the language in my mind. So I began taking notes in phonetics whenever I had the slightest doubt about the pronunciation of a word. These jottings were at first really complicated -always the whole word transcribed-, but by and by I started narrowing them down, leaving out sounds which were obvious and focusing on the very important sounds and symbols. Nowadays, if I have to take a note like that I’m likely to mark just the stress. A single pencil mark before the right syllable and everything else falls into place.


Rodrigo Brunori