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Measurements of the intrinsic stress in hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a‐Si : H) films grown by rf glow discharge decomposition of silane diluted to varying degrees in argon are presented. Films are found to grow under exceedingly high compressive stress. Low values of macroscopic film density and low stress values are found to correlate with high growth rate. An abrupt drop in stress occurs between 2 and 3% silane at precisely the point where columnar growth morphology appears. No corresponding abrupt change is noted in density, growth rate, or plasma species concentrations as determined by optical emissioin spectroscopy. Finally a model of diffusive incorporation of hydrogen or some gaseous impurity during growth into the bulk of the film behind the growing interface is proposed to explain the results.