Compound Nouns Part 3

Compound Nouns Part 1 explained that compound nouns are stressed on the first word. However, for names and titles, the stress pattern is different. For proper names or official titles, the last word is the stronger word.

For example, if I say the name “Mary Jane”, the 2nd part (Jane) is stronger, but if I add her surname, then the stress moves to the last name “Mary Jane Smith”. This is also true for place names, for example, “New York” is stressed on the second part, but “New York City” is stressed on the the 3rd part.

Here are some more examples:
2 part titles: attorney general / assistant professor / vice president / notary public / mayor-elect
2 part people or business names: John Smith / George Washington / Queen Elizabeth / General Motors / Children’s Hospital / Home Depot
2 part place names: Los Angeles / St. Paul / South Dakota / Long Island / Tenth Avenue / Maple Lane / Eastern Boulevard / Lake Superior / Mississippi River / Paris, France / Houston, Texas
3-part names: Yellowstone National Park / Thief River Falls / Vice President Johnson / First Baptist Church / Mall of America

Names which use the words “street” or “store” actually use regular compound noun stress, which means that the first part is stronger: Sixth Street / Oak Street / Jackson Street / Wall Street / General Store / Target Stores.

Be on the lookout for compound nouns, you are likely to find them any time you hear or read something in English! (These are the ones I used to write this blog post: stress pattern / last name / place names / lookout / blog post.)


Compound Nouns Part 2

Compound Nouns Part 1 explained that compound nouns should be stressed on the first word. Part 2 explains how incorrect stress can sometimes change the meaning of what you are saying.

Sometimes, if you put the stress on the second word of a compound noun rather than the first word, it changes from a compound noun to an adjective-plus-noun phrase, and it has a different meaning. Here are some examples:

  • shortcake vs. short cake: a “shortcake” is a specific type of cake, but a “short cake” could be any type of cake that is not tall.
  • silverfish vs. silver fish: a “silverfish” is a kind of insect, but a “silver fish” is a fish that is silver colored.
  • blacktop vs. black top: “blacktop” is a certain kind of road surface, but a “black top” could be any lid or cover that is black in color.
  • briefcase vs. brief case: a “briefcase” is used by businessmen to carry their papers, but a “brief case” means a situation or example that is not very long.

Here’s a fun example I recently heard — it makes use of both a compound noun and the corresponding adjective-noun phrase. In a commercial for the movie “Despicable Me” the announcer says: “Just because he’s a bad guy, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” Can you hear which one (bad guy) is the compound?

Most of the time, if you do not say a compound noun with proper stress, it probably won’t cause a terrible misunderstanding, but it can definitely slow down the conversation. For example, if you are talking about a “network” but you pronounce it as “netWORK”, a native speaker of English will probably pause a second to think about what you just said, and then realize that you were trying to say “network”.

So, it is best to learn to say compound nouns with the correct stress pattern. A final note: even though the name of a person or a place is a noun grammatically, names with two or more parts, such as “New York”, do not follow the stress pattern of compound nouns. This is covered in Compound Nouns Part 3.

Compound Nouns Part 1

A compound word is two words put together to make a new word. In English there are thousands of compound nouns, so it is good to know a few basic things about them.

Compound noun spelling

The first thing to know is that some compound nouns are written with one word (closed compounds), such as “sunset”, and some are written with two separate words (open compounds), such as “sun tan”. There are also a few that are hyphenated, which means they are connected with a dash mark, such as “sun-belt”.

Here are a few more examples:
Closed compound nouns: network, snowfall, notebook, offspring, fishbowl, laptop, nonsense.
Open compound nouns: apple tree, ski pole, music stand, graph paper, chalk board, rush hour, turtle shell.
Hyphenated compound nouns: get-together, check-in, in-laws, close-up.

By the way, these sometimes change over time — some words that are written as an open compound today, might be written as a single word in 10 years from now. Also, some are spelled more than one way, such as half-sister / half sister, or even all three ways, such as lifestyle / life-style / life style.

What that means, is that you can not always recognize a compound noun just by seeing it. However, you can identify a compound noun by listening to the stress.

Compound noun stress

The stress pattern of compound nouns is staightforward — the first word has stronger stress. This is true whether the compound noun is closed or open. In fact, the stress pattern makes open compounds sound like one word, even though they are spelled as two words.

Listen to the stress of these compound nouns — they all have the same stress pattern. In fact, if you listen with your eyes closed, you might not know which ones are open or closed: daylight, coat room, bookworm, yard sale, pathway, oil change, volleyball, flower bed, chestnut, light year.


There are some words that really seem like they should be a compound noun, but they are not, such as: “iced tea”, “apple pie” (all types of pie), and “fast food”. So the best strategy is to use regular compound noun stress when you think that it is a compound, but always be ready to switch the stress if it seems like there is some misunderstanding. So for example, if you go to a restaurant and ask for “LEMON pie” but they don’t know what you are saying, then swtich the stress and say it again “lemon PIE”.

Compound nouns are everywhere – keep your eye open for them, or rather, your ear open for them.

How to stress

Do you know how to stress? I don’t mean feeling worried and stressed out!
I mean word stress and sentence stress — what exactly does that mean?

Word stress and sentence stress are similar — they use the same sound features, but just on a different level. Word stress involves strong syllables and weak syllables in a word, and sentence stress involves strong words and weak words in a sentence.

There are 3 primary factors that go together for stress. When we compare the sound of un-stressed syllables, to stressed syllables, the stressed syllables are: 1. louder, 2. higher in pitch, and 3. a little slower.

Most students can make the sound of stress correctly, but sometimes I find a student who uses only two of those factors, but not all three, and it sounds a little strange.

I will try to demonstrate the difference it makes, if you do not include all three factors, using this sentence:

My phone is not on the table.

That sentence has 3 stressed (strong) words: phone, not, and table.

Now I will say the same sentence without all 3 factors, as best I can. It’s actually hard for me to say them the wrong way accurately, but hopefully you will be able to hear that they don’t sound like normal English.

This is what it sounds like if I make the strong words louder and higher, but not slower.
This is what it sounds like if I make the strong words louder and slower, but not higher.

Now let me say it correctly once more.

Now you know how to stress!

Homographs Part 3

A homograph is a word that has two different pronunciations, and the different pronunciations have different meanings. The words in Homographs Part 1 have a change in vowel sound, and Homographs Part 2 deals with words that have a change in a consonant sound. However, the words here have a change in word stress.

One important thing to know is that changes in word stress often cause changes in vowel sounds, so in some of these words you may notice a vowel sound change, but that change goes with the shift in stress. The primary way that vowels change with word stress is by becoming weaker and reducing to Schwa when they are in a syllable that is not stressed. Here is an example:

OBject (noun – a thing):
–the first syllable is stressed, so the [o] is in the strong syllable and has a Short-o sound

obJECT (verb – to voice disagreement):
–the second syllable is stressed, so the [o] is in the weak syllable and sounds like Schwa

(The capitalized letters show the stressed syllable, but this is not normal spelling).

Word-stress homograph examples

ADdress (noun – the location of a building)
adDRESS (verb – to write down an address OR to speak to a group of people)

COMpound (noun – something made of two or more parts)
comPOUND (verb – to combine or add)

CONtest (noun – a game or event of competition)
conTEST (verb – to challenge or dispute)

CONtract (noun – a written agreement)
conTRACT (verb – to make smaller in size)

DEcrease (noun – the total reduction in the amount of something)
deCREASE (verb – to become smaller in amount)

DIgest (noun – a compilation of information)
diGEST (verb – to break down food in the stomach)

ENtrance (noun – a place of access such as a door or gate)
enTRANCE (verb – to completely captivate someone’s attention)

EXtract (noun – something taken from a larger work or substance)
exTRACT (verb – to remove or pull out)

INcline (noun – a slope or hill)
inCLINE (verb – to lean, tip, or tilt something)

INcrease (noun – the amount that something has grown)
inCREASE (verb – to become greater or larger)

OFfense (noun – the players on a sports team that attack or advance)
ofFENSE (noun – an illegal act)

PERfect (adjective – something that is as good as it can possibly be)
perFECT (verb – to improve or make something as good as possible)

PREsent (noun – a gift)
preSENT (verb – to show or give something formally)

PROduce (noun – food that has been grown, such as vegetables)
proDUCE (verb – to make or create something)

PROject (noun – a large or extended task or piece of work)
proJECT (verb – to estimate, forecast or predict)

PROtest (noun – an group of people organized to display objection to something)
proTEST (verb – to express an objection)

REcord (noun – a written account of information)
reCORD (verb – to keep or store information for future use)

REfund (noun – the amount of money returned to someone)
reFUND (verb – the action of giving money back to someone)

REject (noun – an item that is defective or inadequate)
reJECT (verb – to refuse to accept something)

SUBject (noun – the topic of a conversation or a book)
subJECT (verb – to cause or force something to undergo a process)

TRANSport (noun – a system for moving objects or items)
transPORT (verb – to carry or move goods from one place to another)

UPset (noun – an unexpected defeat of a champion sports team)
upSET (adjective – to be disturbed or extremely unhappy)

This is not a complete list — there are many other words like this. Also, these definitions are not complete — they are just to help show how the meaning can change when the stress changes. Many of these words actually have several definitions.

Perhaps you noticed that these words start with a prefix, such as, “re-” “com-” or “in-“, for example. Most of the homographs that follow this alternating word stress pattern do start with a prefix.

So now that you know about these homographs, you can keep your eyes open for words with prefixes, and keep your ears open for changes in word stress, and that will help you be less confused with words that are pronounced in more than one way.

Chicken or Egg? Phrasal Verbs & Compound Nouns

Many phrasal verbs have a similar looking compound noun. For example, the phrasal verb “take off”, which means “to depart”, corresponds to the noun “takeoff”, which means “departure”.

Here they are in sentences:
The plane could not take off until the snow was cleared.
Why was the takeoff delayed so long?

Phrasal verbs are distinguished from compound nouns by the stress. The stress of phrasal verbs is on the 2nd part, but compound nouns are stressed on the 1st part. Listen to the stress in the these examples:

turn out
This new cake recipe did not turn out very well.
Voter turnout is expected to be high for the next election.

work out
They went to the gym to work out.
The fitness instructor started them on a new workout.

drive through
Let’s drive through so we don’t have to get out of the car.
The drive-through is open even if the dining room is closed.
(Note: this noun is often spelled “drive thru” –it’s easier to put on a sign that way)

break down
The car broke down again? We really need to get a new one.
There was a breakdown in communications after they discovered the new evidence.

break through
I hope the sun breaks through the clouds soon – it’s been raining all week.
There have been many medical breakthroughs in the last 50 years.

knock out
The storm knocked out the electricity in the whole town.
The boxer won by a knockout in the first round.

carry on
We will have to carry on the best we can even without his help.
How many carry-ons does this airline allow?

call back
Will you please ask John to call me back when he arrives?
They promised a callback to let us know when it’s ready.

turn over
Let’s turn this project over to someone with more experience.
That job has a lot of turnover – most workers don’t stay more than a year.

give away
They are going to give prizes away at the grand opening.
Then they will have a giveaway of gift cards next month.

You may have noticed that in some of these examples the phrasal verb and the compound noun have similar meanings, while others do not. In reality, each of these nouns and verbs have several meanings. One other thing to know is that not every phrasal verb has a corresponding compound noun.

So, that leads us to the chicken-or-the-egg question: which came first, the phrasal verbs or the compound nouns? I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess it’s the phrasal verbs. Either way, new phrasal verbs and new compound nouns are being invented in English all the time. So keep your eyes open for them, and remember to be careful with the stress.

(There are many websites for learning English that have lists of phrasal verbs, but the best resource that I have found is The Macmillan Dictionary. The definitions and examples seem to be very thorough.)

Phrasal Verbs — The Good News (The Pronunciation)

The pronunciation pattern of phrasal verbs is less complicated than the grammar. Phrasal verbs have a stable, predictable stress pattern, which is: the 2nd word gets the stress. That means that the 2nd part is said more strongly (or, it sounds louder, longer and higher).

Some examples:
call OFF
pass aWAY
run INto
make UP
hang ON to
look UP to
drop IN on

This stress pattern holds true whether the phrasal verb is un-separated, or when separated by just one or by several words.
They called OFF the meeting.
They called it OFF.
They called all of the remaining sessions OFF.

Listening for the stress can help you distinguish between a normal preposition and a phrasal verb. Prepositions are normally weak, unstressed words in a sentence, but as part of a phrasal verb, they are stressed clearly. The following two sentences show the difference.

We turned on the wrong street.
In this sentence “on” is a preposition. It is pronounced weakly and can be hard to hear because prepositions are not normally stressed.

We turned on all the lights.
In this sentence “on” is part of a phrasal verb. It is strong and easy to hear because the second word of phrasal verbs do receive stress.

When speaking it is important to say phrasal verb stress correctly because you could accidentally say something you didn’t intend. Let’s use the sentence “I ran into the store” for an example. The meaning will be different if you change the stress pattern.

“Into” as a preposition
As a preposition, “into” should be unstressed, and the words “ran” and “store” are both strongly stressed, which gives: I ran into the store. You would say it this way if you were in a hurry or if you wanted to get out of the rain.

“Into” as part of a phrasal verb
As part of a phrasal verb, “into” should be stressed, making “into” and “store” the two strongest words in the sentence. That would give: I ran into the store. Now, I hope that you don’t ever need to say it that way, because that would mean that you crashed — if you walked without looking where you were going, or if you had a driving accident and hit the store with a car.

So, the good news is, knowing about the stress pattern of phrasal verbs can help you improve your pronunciation, and also help you with figuring out a little bit of grammar.

(There are so many phrasal verbs in English that it might help to study them a bit — here are some books that I would recommend.)