Compound & phrasal stress

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The stress system of English is notoriously complicated, consisting of multiple levels of word-level lexical stress, which itself is complicated. On top of the lexical stress, English has stress prominence on different parts of compounds, such as compound nouns, and on different parts of grammatical phrases. In linguistics terminology, grammatical phrases refer to the following:

  • noun phrase (NP), which can include, e.g., a single noun, a noun modified by an adjective or following relative clause, or a compound noun
  • verb phrase (VP), including predicates
  • adjective phrase (AP)
  • adverb phrase (AdvP)
  • prepositional phrase (PP)


For compounds with stress patterns, we need to look at the following types:

  • compound nouns
  • compound adjectives
  • compound verbs, including phrasal verbs


1 Compound nouns

Compound nouns can be written as one or two separate words, or hyphenated. Nonetheless, they are all compounds, and are stressed without concern for spelling patterns. Regardless of orthographic conventions or patterns, the primary stress is usually on the first element (component word), and secondary stress on other component words of a compound.

armchair

cowboy

garage door

bus stop

swimming pool

fast food

mother-in-law

X-ray

calcium chloride

toe surgery

pop song

breakdown

eye shadow

eye-opener

eyewitness


This is often true for even longer, more complex, and more novel compounds.

fingernail polish remover

mainframe computer

restaurant preference survey

word processing class

word stress rules

warp drive engine


Other complexities and quirks will be addressed here later.

2 Compound verbs

For compound verbs, the stress is sometimes on the second component, especially if they are made from Old English elements.

understand

underestimate

under-report

overindulge

overflow


back engineer

reverse engineer


More often it can be on the first element.

waterproof

air-condition

downsize

house sit (or housesit)

baby sit (or babysit)

lipread

handcuff

typewrite

ghostwrite

tiptoe


2.1 Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs have their own complications, but generally, the phrasal verb particle is most often stressed.

get over it

went up

go around


3 Compound adjectives

For compound adjectives, the stress is usually on the second component.

bad-tempered

old-fashioned

well-behaved

first class

half price

short-sighted

over-night

second-hand

hard-working

high-heeled

well-paid

narrow-minded

old-looking

lime-green

top-notch

low-budget

middle-aged


However, the stress can sometimes shift to the first syllable when the adjective occurs before a noun (this can vary according to dialect, individual speakers, or how common the compound adjective is):

A bad-tempered dog chased the middle-aged man.


A few are normally stressed on the first component.

thought-provoking

child-proof

waterproof

time-consuming

waterproof

time-consuming

waterproof

time-consuming


4 Phrasal stress

Similar to compounds is a form of stress over another type of phrase: a grammatical phrase[1]. A small grammatical phrase can have its own stress patterns, where one of the word stresses is made stronger than the others within the phrase. This typically works in phrases like these:


1. Noun phrase (NP): a noun with any combination of modifiers – adjectives, articles (the, a), and other modifiers (many, some, etc.); e.g.,

a rock, the newspaper, an old computer, a defunct blood pressure gauge.

2. Adjective phrase (AP): an adjective by itself (e.g., in a predicate or with adverbial modifiers); e.g.,

‘very happy’ in ‘the researcher was very happy’


In a noun phrase, the noun usually receives more stress than accompanying adjectives or other modifiers. In an adjective phrase, the adjective usually receives more stress than preceding adverbs. For example:

an old computer (NP)

a defunct machine (NP)

it’s very interesting (AP)

It’s a very interesting old computer. (NP)


We can see a distinct difference in stress patterns for noun phrases compared compound noun stress in examples like these – where mispronouncing the stress can alter the meaning.


phrasal stress compound stress
a hot dog (a dog that is hot)

a black bird

a high chair (any chair that is tall)

a red head (any head that is red-colored)

a black board (a wooden board that is black)

a white board (a board that is white)

a big bird (a large bird)

I live in a green house

I live in a white house

I live in a blue house

a hot dog

a blackbird

a high chair (for small children)

a red head (a woman with reddish hair)

a blackboard (for classrooms)

a whiteboard (for classrooms)

Big Bird (Sesame Street character)

I work in a greenhouse

I live in the White House

I work in the Blue House


  1. Note: In the linguistics literature, a phrase and phrasal stress refer to the domain of a noun phrase, adjective phrase, prepositional phrase, and such; this is standard linguistic terminology. I have seen a few pedagogical materials that use "phrasal stress" to refer to what linguists call sentence stress, but this is non-standard terminology.