Every English word has a heavy accent on one of its syllables, the vowel of which must be pronounced more distinctly than the other or others. (The other vowel or vowels tend to be pronounced more quickly and are articulated less clearly, that is, they are "reduced".)

e.g.: aBOVE, reLEASE, EMpire

The "a" in "aBOVE" is so quick and non-distinct that it is nothing like the "a" in "say", for example. Similarly, the "e" in "reLEASE" is not quite as clear as the "e" in "see", and the faster one speaks, the more it is reduced, although the "e" sound of "EASE" does not become similarly reduced; finally, the "-ire" sound of "EMpire" is not quite as clearly drawn out as in the word "fire".

Dictionaries indicate the position of the accented syllable (and its vowel), which is sometimes predictable. This position does not usually change when a word is used in a sentence (that is, in speech), but there are exceptions (see CONTRAST BETWEEN PREFIXES and NOUN VS. VERB (OR ADJECTIVE)). If the speaker does not pronounce a word with the accent in the right place, the vowels will be distorted, and the word may be misunderstood.

Knowing the correct position of the accent in a given word is thus essential to pronouncing it correctly, as any English teacher will tell you. The vowel of the accentuated syllable will be pronounced distinctly, and just as importantly, the vowel of the unaccentuated syllable will be lower in pitch, quicker, and greatly reduced in its features.

Obviously, English people do not depend on dictionaries (or teachers) to pronounce the words of their language with the accent (or "stress") on the correct syllable. There are many perfectly well-spoken English people who don't even own a book, never mind a dictionary, and illiterate English children make few mistakes. There are rules for pronouncing one syllable more emphatically than another in a word, and these are learned unconsciously with the rest of the language. However, in very complicated cases (with special medical terms, for example), even educated English speakers may hesitate, e.g.:

sphygmomaNOmeter, coleOstomy, ANgiogram

Also, to understand the difference between the pronunciation of related terms, one must examine the etymology of the parts and consider the number of syllables of each Greek or Latin root:

electroencePHAlograph (noun) >>>

electroencephaLOgraphy (corresponding abstract noun)

electroencePHAloscope (noun) >>>

electroencephaLOscopy (abstract noun)

ALLergy (noun) >>> allerGEnic (adjective)

This kind of special problem has been treated in great detail in various introductions to medical terminology, and will not be discussed further here. However, etymology remains at the heart of many problems with locating the correct lexical accent:


The purpose of the following is merely to introduce the problem of deciding how to accentuate non-technical words correctly without checking the dictionary every time. Only a few basic rules will be sampled, and no attempt will be made to improve on the great body of existing work in this area.


The main point about the effect of mistakes in the position of the lexical accent is worth repeating. As mentioned above, since the vowel is pronounced most clearly in a syllable that bears a strong accent, and is much shorter and less distinct in an unaccentuated syllable, this means that if a word is pronounced with the accent in the wrong place, at least two vowels in the word will be distorted. The vowel which is supposed to be "lax" or "reduced" will sound strong and clear, while the vowel which should be accented will be reduced and unrecognizable. Perhaps the English speaker will fail to understand the word at all, or he may be amused (the reader can decide which is worse).

For example, the letter "e" in the word "deMAND" is unaccented, and so is pronounced more quickly and less distinctly than the "a" in the second syllable. As one's speech becomes more rapid, that "e" will sound more and more like the "a" in the word "aBOVE". The "a" in "deMAND", however, is very distinctive and recognizable, like the "a" in "HAT". Suppose you inadvertently mispronounce "deMAND" as "DEmand": the word might no longer be recognizable at all; in rapid speech, it might sound like the word "DEmon" ("a devil"), e.g.:

I have a deMAND.


I have a DEmon!

Another unfortunate mistake is to pronounce a word with the accent on the right syllable, but with all of the vowels equally clear and distinct, that is to say with the vowel of the unaccented pronounced with its "original" rather than its "reduced" value, e.g.:

*Image (with the "a" unreduced, like in "say")

*MArriage (same mistake)

These are mistakes that I have heard in class many times. It is hard to say why this sounds so strange to English ears, but it does. Yet, it is really a very easy thing to correct, once you become aware of it.

The preceding remarks are relevant to the following sections, viz. "-TION" (etc.), NOUN VS. VERB (OR ADJECTIVE), NOUN (OR ADJECTIVE) VS. VERB, CONTRAST BETWEEN PREFIXES, and CONTRAST BETWEEN ROOTS, since these are situations in which the position of the lexical accent may change. Remember, however, that the correct pronunciation of the lexical accent of a word is essential. Mispronunciation of the lexical accent sounds like slurring. Learning the correct position of the lexical accent of a word (by heart, if necessary) is as important as learning to pronounce the "difficult sounds", such as "initial h", "initial vowel", "voiced and unvoiced `th'", the "diphthongs", and so on.

2. "-TION", "-SION", "-ENSITY", "-OLOGY", "-ANIC", "-IC", "-ICIAL", -IAN"

Words ending in the Latin suffix "-tion" are usually pronounced with the main accent on the next-to-last syllable, e.g., renDItion, amBItion. Similarly, words ending in "-sion" usually follow the same pattern, e.g., reVIsion, reVULsion, deCIsion, inCIsion, and so on. Note that in America, however, we say "TElevision", while elsewhere in the world (e.g., in Great Britain, South Africa, Australia) the rule may apply normally to this word, pronounced "teleVIsion".

A similar rule is apparent with other Latin and Greek suffixes. General rules can be found to explain the pronunciation of these and many other types of words, but that would take us much, much too far afield. Instead, I have provided the following sample list of words which students have great difficulty pronouncing:

AtLANtic, hoRRIfic, PaCIfic, speCIfic, teRRIfic;

beneFIcial, ofFIcial, superFIcial;

DENsity, iMMENsity, inTENsity, proPENsity;

HisPAnic, MAnic, tiTAnic;

anoRExia, caCHExia, dysLExia;

enginEER, mountaiNEER, veNEER;

biOlogy, neuROlogy, psyCHOlogy;

neuROsis, psyCHOsis, osteopoROsis;

ARAbian, CaNAdian, ACAdian, GreNAdian, TasMAnian, ArMEnian, coMEdian.

Finally, take note that abstract nouns formed by adding the Anglo-Saxon suffixes "-ness", "-hood", or "-ship" to a word do not cause the original position of the accent to change, e.g.,


NEIGHbour >>> NEIGHbourhood


SCHOlar >>> SCHOlarship

There are cases in which the basic position of the accent does not change, even when more than one "derivative" suffix has been added:

SCHOlar >>> SCHOlarly >>> SCHOlarliness

OWN >>> OWNer >>> OWNership

LOVE >>> LOVEly >>> LOVEliness

LONE >>> LONEly >>> LONEliness

WRETCH >>> WRETCHed >>> WRETCHedness

The inquisitive will have noticed that there are interesting limits on these further derivations. Of these endings which are not associated with any change in the position of the accent, only "-ed" and "-ly" allow another (derivational) suffix, as in the examples above. (Note however the tendency for usually "inflectional" endings to create new meanings, like "derivational" ones: CHAMpion >>> CHAMpionship >>> CHAMpionships; the plural alone (the ending, or just the notion of countability) can change meanings: love, my second love; business, a business; coffee, coffees.)

Thus, we do not usually have ?* SCHOlarshipped, *PArenthoodness, ?*LOnelinessless, and so on. Notice in particular that the "-ed" of the past participle can give an adjective, which (sometimes) can in turn become an adverb or an abstract noun, as in WRETCHed >>> WRETCHedly, WRETCHedness. On the other hand, the "-ing" of the present participle can also give an adjective, which can in turn be made into an adverb, but not an abstract noun: aMUsing, aMUsingly, *aMUSingness (?*aMUsedness seems theoretically possible, but is redundant with a simpler construction, aMUSement: "We watched in amusement").

In general, adverbs and derived abstract nouns are made from adjectives, but not all adjectives can be used to make adverbs and abstract nouns. Nothing futher can be done with an adverb. In examples like LONEly >>> LONEliness, WOmanly >>> WOmanliness, the "-ly" ending is adjectival, not adverbial. And why can the passive participle "perVERted" produce "perVERtedly" and "perVERtedness", while the active participle "perverting" would yield a strange-sounding "perVERtingly", and an unacceptable "perVERtingness"? Perhaps the meanings of the passive or active participle (that is, the time-stability of a passive adjective, as opposed to that of one based on the active), and the meaning of the verb interact somehow. Consider "assure":

asSURE >>> asSURed >>> asSURedly, asSURedness; asSURing >>>*asSURingly, *asSURingness

reasSURe >>> reasSURed >>> reasSURedly, *reasSURedness; reasSURing >>> ?*reasSURingness


Whether it be in words, compounds, or even sentences, the specific meaning and grammatical status of a grammatical unit is often determined by the position of the accent.

A simple but dramatic example of this is to be found in forty or so common two-syllable words like "INsult/inSULT" or "CONtent/conTENT", which are understood as nouns when the accent falls on the first syllable, and as verbs (or adjectives) when it falls on the second. A sample appears below.

There are hundreds of other two-syllable words that have nothing to do with this rule, e.g., TRANsfer, or deMAND, both of which can be understood as nouns or as verbs, depending on the context, and yet are always pronounced as indicated.

The reader for whom this use of the accent is surprising or novel is urged to study the lists below, dictionary in hand.

Note that DEsert (noun) and deSSERT (noun) are unrelated. ENvelope (noun) / enVElope (verb), INvalid (noun) and inVAlid (adjective) are among the rare examples of three-syllable words that behave in this way. Other words of more than two syllables may show a similar noun-verb opposition: while the primary lexical stress remains in the same place, in the pronunciation of the verb a secondary stress reinforces the vowel of the final syllable:










Notice that although there may be no corresponding verb, the reinforced vowel appears in corresponding adjectives:

rudiment - rudimentary

noun-adjective or verb alternation:

noun: stress first syllable

adjective/verb: stress second syllable























Envelope/ enVElope











INterchange/ interCHANGE

INvalid / inVAlid













reefer (obsolete slang, "marijuana cigarette") vs. reFER













* : Currently undergoing change. Canadians often pronounce these words with the accent on the first syllable. "Second", for example, is almost always pronounced so.


In "-TION", (etc.) above, it was noted that etymology has a lot to do with how to pronounce the accent of a word. Observe the pronunciation of the vowels in the following Latinate words:





















These can be either nouns (or sometimes adjectives) and verbs. While the position of the accent does not change, the last vowel is pronounced as "schwa" (like the "a" in "above") for a noun (or adjective), and "ay" (like the "a" in "ate") for a verb.

This is not regular, e.g. "CONcentrate" can be a noun or a verb, and is pronounced with the same accentuation and vowels ("ay").

Furthermore, some of these words are basically verbs, and require some sort of prefix to become nouns (or adjectives), e.g.,

deFAME >>> defaMAtion

GEnerate >>> unreGEnerate, generAtion, etc.

VIolate >>> inVIolate, vioLAtion, etc.

suBORdinate >>> isuBORdinate, subordiNAtion, etc.

On the other hand, some of these words are nouns (or adjectives) only, such as:

DElicate, ilLIterate, proTEctorate (with "schwa")

Others are verbs only, such as:

eNUmerate, eXOnerate, ilLUminate,

pronounced as expected (with "ay"). Note the exception:

SEnsate, inSEnsate ("ay").


As mentioned above (NOUN VS. VERB (OR ADJECTIVE)), the position of the accent in a word can vary for grammatical reasons (e.g., INsult (noun) vs. inSULT (verb)). The position of the accent may also change for reasons of contrast, e.g.:

Politics is BORing and FRUStrating. You can get involved if

you LIKE, but I am quite unINterested. I just hope you can

find an honest, disINterested candidate.

This example shows the basic "dictionary accent" for the words "unINterested" and disINterested". Note what happens when they are emphasized in an enumeration (this emphasis is optional):

He is both DISinterested and UNinterested!

(Too BAD, he would have been an excellent candidate.)

The same "shift" in accent occurs when the two words are opposed outright:

"DISinterested" does not mean the same thing as

"UNinterested". Most people confuse these two words.

UNinterested means "having no desire to learn about, or to

get involved with something", while DISinterested means

"having no financial or private motive for becoming

involved in something".

On the other hand, when the prefixes are the same and the roots are different, the usual "dictionary accent" applies. When such words are contrasted with each other, the usual accents are just a little heavier than usual; they rarely change places:

A TRANsplant is not the same as a transFUSION. The FORmer

involves an entire ORgan, while the LATTer involves the


See CONTRAST BETWEEN ROOTS. Also note the following common occurrence, in which a word is strongly contrasted with its own derivative:

What we need for our basement isn't a huMIdifier, but rather

a DEhumidifier. (Usual pronunciation: dehuMIdifier.)


As in this case of CONTRAST BETWEEN PREFIXES, the roots of two words may be contrasted. However, most speakers do not "shift" the accent, as with prefixes. The basic lexical accent can be on the root to begin with, or on a prefix:

The patient required a TRANSplant. ("dictionary accent")

A transFUsion would be dangerous at this time. ("" "")

When there is an idea of contrast, the accent is often reinforced, rather than moved, e.g.:

A TRANSplant isn't the same thing as a transFUSion!

(Don't you know ANything?! You should

Note that the contrast can be straightforward (the lexical accent of each word is a little stronger), or ironic, as above (with the UP-DOWN-DIP).

For many speakers, however, the position of the accent can shift (interestingly, a left-ward shift is more common than a right-ward one). The verbs "to TRANSlate" and "to transLIterate" contrast in the usual way, with a heavier accent on the syllables bearing the "dictionary accent". The corresponding nouns, "transLAtion" and "transliteRAtion", which are normally accentuated before the suffix "-TION", usually contrast in the same way, but a left-ward shift is also heard:

I would HARdly call it a transLAtion, it looks more to me

like a transLIteration.

Finally, the accent of a compound may shift right-wards when the compound is in contrast with a word that is identical to the first member of the compound, e.g.,

YOU may call this "a little RAIN", but I would say it looks

like a rain-STORM. (normal compound: RAIN-storm)

This use is usually humorous or very emphatic. Not all speakers do this, and those who do often insist that they don't. Interesting, isn't it?


The adjective usually precedes the noun in English (e.g., "hot COffee"). The accent is usually on the noun, not the adjective. There are apparent exceptions (e.g., "BAD guys"), but most of these are fixed expressions, and they are used and pronounced like COMPOUNDS. The accent can also shift from the noun to the adjective when there is an idea of contrast (e.g., "I want the GREEN shoes, not the MAUVE ones").

When the adjective precedes the noun, this is sometimes called "attributive position" or "prenominal modification", or indeed many other things. What is important to remember is that when an adjective and a noun "go together" in this way, there usually is a stronger, higher accent on the noun, e.g. "a rotten EGG", "my German GRAMMAR".

On the other hand, when an adjective is linked to a noun through a verb like "to be", "to become", or "to seem" (sometimes called "linking verbs"), the adjective is said to be in "predicate position" ("attribut du sujet"), e.g., "the egg seems ROTTen". The adjective in predicative position is usually accentuated a little bit more strongly than the rest of the sentence (unless there is contrast, e.g., "The MILK smells fresh, but the EGG seems ROTTen.").

In addition to adjectives, there are several types of words that can modify a noun. These include present and past participles ("a boring CLASS", "a broken VASE"), possessors ("my uncle's DASCHUND"), and even nouns ("the world CHAMpion").

The difference between COMPOUNDS and MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequences can be fuzzy (whether it really exists is a theoretical problem, and the student of English must memorize a lot of "exceptions" and supposedly special cases). For example, "world CHAMpion" can be thought of either as a MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequence in which the "modifier" is a noun rather than an adjective, or it can be thought of as a COMPOUND which, for some reason, is pronounced like a MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequence. Exasperating, isn't it? Notice that there are several other constructions with "world" ("world CLASS", "world LEAder", "world-WIDE", "world-reNOWNed", etc.), in which the second member can be another modifer. Such "world-" constructions can then become modifiers themselves:

He's a WORLD-renowned REsearcher and enjoys

WORLD-wide ceLEbrity.

Note that the accent in the original "world-" sequence is reversed, and the overall accent of the new sequence is still typical of "modifier plus noun" sequences. Note that COMPOUNDS can be used as adjectives, and the resulting overall accent pattern is similar to that of the "modifier plus modifier plus noun" examples above:

My uncle bought a used POST-office truck.

He wants to be the next TAble-tennis champion.

Here, the "modifier" is a compound noun rather than an adjective, and the pronounciation seems to follow the rule of "MODIFIER PLUS NOUN", instead of the rule for COMPOUNDS (e.g., "WHITE House" is a compound name for the American President's mansion, while "white HOUSE" is a "modifier plus noun" sequence meaning "a house that is white").

A list of common cases ("modifier plus noun", where the modifier is a noun) has been included below. The reader is advised to read the section on COMPOUNDS to appreciate why these exceptions may have to be learned separately.

Notice that the modifier plus noun accent pattern is present in



or even, used metaphorically,

tin GOD

as well as in names of certain holidays, e.g.,


Christmas EVE

Easter SUNday

and some seasonal references, e.g.,

fall SEAson

package HOLiday

Spring BREAK

and a few special daily events:

evening MEAL

mid-day WORK-out

midnight SNACK

morning PRAYers


Notice, however, that most people refer to the "WINter semester", perhaps because semesters are so often thought of in opposition to (or in "contrast with") each other.

Proper names and brand names usually follow the pattern as well:

Dead-Eye DICK

New ENGland

Preparation H

Rocky RaCOON

Physical peculiarities:

falsetto VOICE

trick KNEE

On the other hand, actual body parts are pronounced as compounds, e.g., FUNNy bone, ADam's apple, etc.

Names of foods, recipes, members of series and the like are often treated as proper names:

baker's DOzen

cottage CHEESE

knuckle SANDwich

Model T

Then too, there are words like "head", "self", etc., that are often treated as modifiers (note that there some "adjectives" listed here):

class CLOWN

class PREsident

head HONcho

head NURSE

school superinTENdant

school PLAY-ground

school NEWspaper

(But notice: SCHOOL teacher, SCHOOL bus)






self-SERve, self-SERving


There are numerous collocations with "and" that also take the accent on the end:

beck and CALL

rock and ROLL

Show and TELL

touch and GO

For some reason, parts of houses (doors, floors, windows, walls) often appear with nouns pronounced as modifiers:

BATHroom ``WINdow

kitchen DOOR

LIving-room ``FLOOR

BASEment ``WALLS, etc.

"Openings" are treated similarly:

cave OPening

tunnel ENTrance, etc.

"Possessives" which have become indissociable parts of expressions are usually pronounced as COMPOUNDS (accent on the "modifier", e.g., "LADies' room"), but there are puzzling exceptions:

baker's DOzen

dead-man's FLOAT

Note that compound adjectives that can be related to prepositional expressions follow the same pattern. When such adjectives modify atributively, they may be pronounced as spondees, or (for some people) make a rising, three-step patter:

care-FREE = free of care:


cock-SURE = as sure (confident) as a cock (rooster):


snow-white = as white as snow


When, however, the second member of the compound adjective is not itself already an adjective, there may be the usual compound pronunciation. In attributive position, compounds may be pronounced as spondees before the higher-sounding noun, or in a mid-low-high pattern:



In English, a compound is usually an indissociable word containing at least two other words, e.g., "the WHITE-House" (meaning the American presidential mansion). In this case, the President's mansion can never be referred to by one of the two parts alone ("the White", or "the House"). Both words, or "members" of the compound, must be said when referring to this particular place. Thus, in meaning, if not in pronunciation, a compound can sometimes be likened to a proper name.

The general rule in English is to pronounce two-member compounds with an accent on the first word or member. On the other hand, in MODIFIER PLUS NOUN pairs, the accent usually falls on the second member. While "a white HOUSE" means "a house that is white", "the WHITE-House" usually refers to the President's mansion. (Remember that in some contexts, the modifier can take the accent instead of the noun, e.g. "I used to live in a WHITE house, but we have just moved into a RED one." See CONTRASTIVE STRESS.)

There are a number of exceptional cases in which compounds are pronounced like modifier plus noun pairs (i.e., with the accent on the second member).



Whenever the first member of a compound specifies what the second member is "for", the accent goes on the first member:

I bought a SCREWdriver to fix my HAIR-dryer with.

Note that in these examples, the first member is like a "direct object", and the second is like the "agent" form of a transitive verb (verb + er).

Similar "verb / object" relationships are apparent in "-ing" compounds:

There was a lot of NAME-calling and DOOR-slamming.

Compounds like "BRAIN-storming" are also found ("storming with one's brains"). I do not believe that there are any clear cases of a compound being formed from a verb and its subject, e.g. *BAby-sleeping, *PEOple-dying.



In expressions like "HOT lips" and "BAD guys", the "modifier plus noun" have come to designate someone or certain specific kinds of people. The expressions have become "set", and are used as indissociable units. "Hot LIPS", of course, simply means "lips that are hot" (for whatever reason), while "HOT lips" is immediately recognized as someone's nickname (even by people who don't recognize this character from the television show). That means that any similar "modifier plus noun" expression could be pronounced as a compound, in order to create a nickname (either flattering or insulting). "SQUARE-head", "BIG-mouth", "RED-neck", "SHINY-shoes", etc. Note that nicknames and insults are usually pronounced as compounds anyway: "NEEDLE-nose", "MAMA'S boy", "SMART-ass", "EGG-head", etc. However, there are exceptions. An insult sometimes heard in the U.S. is "Jewish PRINcess" (you can look this one up for yourself). Whe I was in Halifax, I met a local celebrity known to all as "Big RED". For some reason, the "modifier plus noun" pronunciation is preserved.

Note that this use goes beyond insults and nicknames; the notion of a "modifier plus noun sequence" somehow becoming a "fixed" or "set" expression, pronounced as a compound, is not limited to personal designations: "HOT rod", "LAdies' room", "FLEET Street" and other "street names", show that adjectives, possessives and other modifiers can become part of a COMPOUND, or at least something that is like one in meaning and in pronunciation. In the case of street names, as opposed to roads, avenues, and so on, a common-ensical explanation often heard is that there are more streets than avenues, boulevards, and so on, such that, when they are named, it is often with an idea of opposition in mind (e.g., "Go to FLEET Street, not SPARKS Street."). According to this reasoning, modifier plus noun sequences pronounced contrastively can become set in that special pronunciation. Common sense is not clear on why that should happen in some cases and not in others (e.g., "LAdies' room", versus "baker's DOzen").

In fact, "common SENSE" is a modifier plus noun sequence which, by now, through its contrast with "NONsense", should have acquired the compound-like pronunciation, but for some reason, it still has not!


These are pronounced like modifier plus noun sequences, which almost makes sense (e.g., the first name "qualifies" the family or generic name, that is, it acts like a "restrictive modifier").

My name is Harry BelaFOnte.

LAdies and GENtlemen, Sonny BOno!!

I started out in life as Fred GALL.

I was born in Dawson ``CIty.

I CANceled my subSCRIption to Mad ``MAGazine when I came to

LaVAL Uni``VERsity.

I wonder if you could tell me how to get to Carnegie HALL.

I bought a Coleman LAMP and a Franklin STOVE.

I visited Calgary's famous Huskey TOwer and Esso PLAza.


Unlike boulevards, roads, highways, alleys, and so on, street names are pronounced with the accent on the first member, rather than the second. The interesting question as to whether street names are "compounds" or "modifier plus noun sequences with contrastive stress on the modifier" is indeed just that -an interesting question. If the latter explanation is correct, then for some reason the "contrastive accent" is always there. It's just one of those dumb little idiosyncrasies.

E.g.: The fastest way to MEAT Street is to go straight down

BOdybuilder ``BOUlevard, turn right at Pepto-DISmal

PLAza, keep right on until you reach aMIno-acid Avenue,

and take the first left at the light at HOT-Rod ``ROAD.

Other cases where the "compound pronunciation" is used (for some mysterious reason, perhaps because these words are analyzed as derivative suffixes, like "-ness" and "-hood") include names of cities and residences ending with "House", "Place", "-burg", and "-ville":



My HUSband and I are originally from PLATTSburg, and we

moved to DULLEsville during the Gulf WAR because we thought

it would be SAfer. Back HOME we used to be resident

MAnagers in an aPARTment block called "HARRison House".

Now my HUSband and I wash DISHes together at a nice little

Italian restaurant called JULie's Place. It's just like

being YOUNG again!



Certain COMPOUNDS (that is, indissociable sequences of words without connecting particles) are pronounced with the accent on the second member, like MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequences. These include certain words for furniture, doors, walls, ceilings, floors, windows, and so on, e.g. "living-room SEttee", "kitchen TABle", "kitchen CHAIR", "kitchen STOVE" vs. "OFFice table", "DENtist's chair", "CAMping stove".

Common sense is hard put to explain why kitchens and other rooms in a private home are special in this regard. Perhaps, in fact, they do not appear with the compound-like "contrastive" pronunciation because they are the least special places in one's life, as the household contains the most "basic" examples that the individual knows of walls, windows, furniture and so on.

This latter reasoning (if it really is one) is borne out by the logic shown in the rule of article use according to which "the" is used when ownership, location, or identity are clear from the context, e.g., "She went for a walk in the garden" (instead of "in her garden"), "Please pass the salt" (instead of "the salt which is normally placed on this dinner table"), or "The post-man has not yet come by" (instead of "The post-man who delivers mail in this neighbourhood including this house"). In these examples, it is shown that for the sake of economy, part-to-whole relationships can simply be inferred.

Likewise, certain common house parts are considered to be so basic that they are not in contrast with anything; rather, similar things from other, more "specialized" places are considered to be in contrast with them, e.g., DANCE floor vs. bathroom FLOOR; DRAWing table vs. kitchen TAble; OFFice chair vs. kitchen CHAIR. The question "Which kitchen?" does not come up any more than the questions "Which garden (or salt, or post-man)".

"Door" sequences are another case in point. These collocations should be pronounced like other COMPOUNDS OF PURPOSE, since after all, a "cellar DOOR" is "a door for entering the cellar". It would seem that the compound-like pronunciation is not required here because the idea of the purpose os a door is so basic that it does not need to be indicated by the special accent pattern, as in the case of "deSSERT fork", the basic purpose of which is in opposition to that of a "PITCH-fork" or a "TUning fork". All of the above leads one to speculate that compounds in general have their origins in modifier plus noun sequences which become specialized in some way.

Similarly, words for openings to tunnels, caves, barns and the like are often designated with what look like COMPOUNDS, but are pronounced like MODIFIER PLUS NOUN SEQUENCES, e.g. "cave OPening", vs. "CAVE dweller"; car/garage/hangar/shed DOOR, hall ENtranceway, sewer ACCessway, tunnel ENtrance.

This pattern also appears in names of dishes and recipes (real or imaginary): Tofu SouFFLÉ, Gila Monster CURRy, Baked ALAska, ice-cream SUNdae, peanut-butter STEW, etc.


Compound-like words that name a thing and the substance of which it is made are pronounced like MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequences, e.g. "a gold RING" (instead of "a golden RING"), "paper TOWels", "paper NAPkins", and so on. Note that these words behave like compounds in that the first member usually can't take special endings (plurals, etc.) "Woman DOCtor / women DOCters" is one of a few troublesome exceptions.

This restriction does not seem to apply to derivational suffixes: notice compound adjectives like "ONE-armed" and "LEFT-handed", in which "-ed" is added to create a compound adjective describing a physical or mental characteristic (usually of humans or devices, and sometimes animals). (The "-ed" ending is used for making regular past participles, which are used as adjectives, but it is also used sometimes to make an adjective from a noun, e.g., WRETCH >>> WRETCHed.)

As noted, the first member can be a noun or an adjective, and the second is (usually) some part of a person's anatomy or moral make-up. There are other cases, involving clothing, jewellry, geometrical shapes, and so on:

V-necked >>> a V-necked DRESS

DIAmond-enCRUSTed >>> a DIAmond-encrusted BROOCH

nine-POINTed >>> a NINE-pointed STAR

Some of these adjectives can become adverbs:

left-HANDed >>> left-HANDedly

Note that in these cases, while there is much variation in the position of the accent for the compound adjectives, the corresponding adverbs are pronounced regularly, with the accent on the second member.

Some compound adjectives seem to vary in pattern when used attributively or predicatively, e.g. "They are hand-PICKED", that is "hand-" is adverbial (="They are picked by HAND"), versus "They are HAND-picked MEN / men" (note the inversion, with "MEN" and "men" both possible, as discussed below; cf.: left-HANDed, second-HAND, second-CLASS, single-HANDed), and adverbs on the second:


When he showed up in an old-fashioned double-breasted suit, she gave a short, half-hearted laugh.

Note that the accent pattern of compound adjectives appears to be "down-up" when the adjective is part of an enumeration, or when the adjective is in predicate position, and there is no idea of contrast:

When I asked him what I thought of the book, he complimented

me for using a word-processor, which I found rather left-HANDed.




What ELSE can I say about my fiancée? She's red-HAIRED,

open-MINDED, full-BOSOMED, well-SPOKEN, and FRECKle-faced.

Oh, and VEry hard to beat at CHESS.


COMPOUNDS that specify the substance of which the designated object is made, such as "chain LINK" (pronounced like MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequences) offer examples of compounds being used as modifiers (note the inversion of the relative positions of the accents):

chain-LINK >>> CHAIN-link FENCE

Such words are compounds, at least insofar as they are indissociable, but their pronunciation varies greatly according to the syntactic and conversational context. Since they are adjectives, they can be used PREDICATIVELY or ATTRIBUTIVELY.

In the latter case, they become part of MODIFIER PLUS NOUN sequences such as "LEFT-handed PITcher", "red-haired WOman", and so on:

A LEFT-handed PITCHER / pitcher can upset the whole GAME!

Here, the compound adjective has modified a noun; one would expect the strongest accent to be on the noun, the second strongest on the first word, and the lowest or weakest on the first. However,

A RED-haired WOMAN / woman was waiting for him in the BLEAchers.

Note the surprising irregularity in the overall accent patterns of both examples (discussed below). On the other hand, when "-ed" compound adjectives are used predicatively, that is, when the adjective as a whole necessarily brings new information about the subject of the sentence (e.g., "She was RED-HAIRED") or the object (e.g. "I found her very ABsent-MINded"), the accent seems to always be on the last member, or on both members (even though these are supposed to be compounds!).

This may be because of the tendency to pronounce the last major word of any sentence with more emphasis, especially when that last word is the predicate, and, as such, is new information, e.g.,

He has just been promoted to MAjor.

I pronounce you MAN and WIFE.

When will you become an aDULT?

I am FED UP!

She drove him CRAzy.

It looks like a '66 CHEvy.

The curious variation observed in the pronunciation of compound adjectives and the nouns they qualify has something to do with the idea of contrast, or more specifically, the lack of contrast (and of any corresponding accent) when the noun represents something already known:

(What does she look like?)

She's a RED-haired woman. (Only one new piece of information)

If there were an accent on "WOman", the emphasis would be on her womanhood, for some reason that would have nothing to do with simply identifying her (since the questioner has already referred to a "she": the gender of the person is known).

On the other hand, when the qualified noun contains new information (which is thus, in some sense, in "contrast" with "old information"), that noun will take the strongest accent of the sequence:

(What does he do for a living?)>>>

He's a LEFT-handed PITCHer. (Two new pieces of information)

Discussions of this sort are the object of theoretical controversy; the student must learn to listen to native speakers and be aware that there is systematic variation in the pronunciation of these types of sequence. However, experts do not agree about what the system is.


Recall that an expression like "a mother's BOY" and "the ladies' ROOM" are MODIFIER PLUS NOUN SEQUENCES where the "modifier" is a "possessive" (marked " 's "). The meaning is more or less "a boy who is his mother's own SON " and "the room that belongs to the LAdies". Like for other "ordinary" modifier plus noun sequences, the accent is on the noun, not the modifier (unless there is an idea of contrast).

When the accent is on the "possessive modifier", however, a compound is understood; the overall meaning cannot be explained as above, and the members of the sequence are indissociable. A "MOther's boy" (or as some say, a "MAma's boy") is a very particular kind of boy or man (you had better ask your friends about this one). The "LAdies' room", similarly, is a particular kind of place, not a specific one. It doesn't "belong" to any particular ladies, it is "for" ladies in general (see COMPOUNDS OF PURPOSE). Note also that in names of bars, restaurants, and the like, a "modifier plus noun" is usual, e.g., Ed's BAR and GRILL, The Rocked CaFÉ, Julie's DIner, The Platinum HoTEL, etc. However, with "Place" and "House", you always get a "compound" pronunciation, e.g., ED's Place, JUlie's Place, the PLATinum House.



The accent goes on the last member when used predicatively; used attributively, the compound has a low, level accent, and the following noun is accentuated, as in the usual modifier + noun sequence: day-to-day, down-to-earth, free-and-easy, hot to trot, life-and-death, out-of-the-way, out of date. The accentuation of long compound nouns is is a subject of disagreement:

?bride-to-BE, ??BROther-in-law, ?BY-your-leave, comrade in ARMS, PICK-me-up, rank and FILE, do-it-yourSELFer

Long compounds with "WH-" words regularly take the accent on that word:

WHAT'S-his-name, WHATchamacallit


You-know-WHO, You-know-WHAT


"Phrasal" verbs may yield compounds. Some take the accent on the second member, while most take it on the first, e.g.

come-uppance, looker-on?, summing-up,


break-in, break-out, break-through, come-on, cover-up, cut-backs, cut-off, hand-out, hang-out, knock-out, lay-about, on-looker, make-up, melt-down, outbreak, outburst, overflow, passer-by, play-back, print-out, spill-over, spin-off, trickle-down effect, stand-by, turn-on, turn-over, runner-up, wash-out

Note the crucial difference between sequences of "verb plus (adverbial) particle" and "verb plus true preposition", which obey different syntactical rules, and are sometimes accentuated differently.


When compound are contrasted, the accent occasionally shifts right-ward, in both compounds, or both members of the compound will be strongly accentuated. Often, the first compound is pronounced "normally"; it is the second one which is modified. This seems common in humorous or ironic statements, e.g.:

I thought you promised to build me a book-SHELF, not a book


Kids, what you've built isn't a TREE-house, it's more like a


Note that in the last example, a CLEFT could be used ("IT/THIS IS X THAT + SENTENCE) instead of a PSEUDO-CLEFT (WHAT + RELATIVE CLAUSE + IS + NOUN):

Kids, this isn't a TREE-house that you've built, it's more

like a TREE-CAStle!!


When cursing somebody (whether or not it is to the victim's face) the last syllable of the curse may have either a peculiar, slowly rising, contemptuous note, or an exasperated, falling note. When the curser uses the rising tone, this may alter or even reverse the normal pattern of certain compounds, as they are pronounced in a full sentence. Compare:

He was just a BLOCKhead. His sister is a real Idiot.

(usual "dictionary accent" and compound pronunciation)


That blockHEAD! You blockHEAD!

What are you doing with that SCREWdriver, you idiOT!

Better not call ME an idiot, you idiOT!!