I heard this question: "What am I supposed to do?" asked often by native speakers in movies. I'm sure the stress is changing depending on the context, however I think there is a default unemphatic context used in everyday speech. For example:

Person A and B are speaking.

Person A: I'm not impressed with your results.

Person B: Okay. What am I supposed to do?

To make it clearer I decided to cut this phrase out from a movie and attached here: https://youtu.be/t3Bdw5CKHIY

The lady that asks the question doesn't seem to stress "am", "I", or "to". She doesn't try to make contrast between her and someone else when asking the question. I might be wrong, because I'm not a native speaker and can't trust what I hear.

I perceive stress on "What", "supposed" and perhaps "do". I'm not sure if "do" need stress in a context like above. Any idea? Can I use equal stress on all three words?

I would be grateful for any suggestion. What words would you stress if you would simply ask the same question.

Thank you. Your time is appreciated.

  • 2
    I have no real answer (I'm a non-native speaker), but you might be interested in examples of my imaginative responses to Person A (which could depend on the relationship, the mood, the occasion, and so on): dropbox.com/s/s91g9r9vbob18x5/…. BTW, I recorded that before checking out your YouTube clip. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


The question could be asked a half dozen ways in daily speech. Emphasize "I", and it could mean "I'm powerless in the situation". Emphasize "do" and it could express anxiety or bewilderment. Emphasize "supposed" and it could express impatience or annoyance at being criticized. Emphasize "am" and it could mean "Don't tell me what I should have done when the issue first arose; tell me what I should do today, given the latest set of circumstances".

The imperative contexts of "supposed to" are so varied that there is no "default" intonation.

  • Thank you. I think I will better learn the intonation when I will be around native speakers. At least now I learned how to link the words together using the phonetics rules (ending consonant with beginning vowel). Your time is greatly appreciated. Thank you so much! Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:08
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    Getting a grasp on phonetics is important for understanding the rapid speech of native speakers, but don't worry too much about emulating those phonetics.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:10
  • I'm mostly interested in the fast speech of native speakers. I read a book on American accent, but when it comes to the rhythm of the language, they usually say: stress the last content word and that's all. It's one of the thing sthat's not covered in detail. I'm trying to understand word stress more though. I'm listening to movies every day. I was often told by native speakers that my intonation is wrong and I think stressing the wrong word was one of the reasons. Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:25
  • It isn't only single-word stress but the overall intonation of the phrase that is important.
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 12:32
  • @TRomano: I suppose you could say it's "important", but it's hardly vital. I don't think Stephen Hawking's speech synthesizer bothers much about such things, but we don't really have any trouble understanding him (his words, I mean - sometimes the content can be challenging! :) Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 13:06

As TRomano says, you could emphasize any word in the sentence to get a slightly different meaning.

In this case, it sounds to me like she is emphasizing "what". That is, the hard part of the question is what it is that she is supposed to do, what action she should take. English speakers often emphasize "what" in such a sentence to indicate that while they acknowledge that they should do SOMETHING, they have no idea what a productive something to do might be.

In contrast, if she had asked, "What am I supposed to do?", that would indicate that there might be things that others can do, but she doesn't know what she herself can do. "What am I supposed to do?" would indicate that she did something, but someone else is saying that she did the wrong thing, so now she is asking what she should have done, as opposed to what she did do. Etc.

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