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How to stress compound words (phrasal verbs, compound nouns and compound...


Compound words are composed of multiple words that together mean one idea. Examples of compound words are phrasal verbs, compound nouns and compound adjectives. Compound words are fixed expressions since they always occur together to mean something quite different from their constituents. That is, frequently, their meaning cannot be inferred from the sum of the meaning of each individual word of the compound. Since they have one meaning, compound words work like one word and have their own intrinsic stress patterns. 


Compound words need to be contrasted with descriptive expressions, whose meaning is indeed the sum of the constituent words of the expressions. These descriptive expressions follow the normal stress pattern of English sentences, the details of which we learn in chapter 3 of this book, Rhythmic Stress. The main idea though is that, normally, words that are stressed in sentences are content words such as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and unstressed words are function words such as prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, and modal verbs. Among the content words, nouns are normally stressed the most.


Compound words and descriptive expressions can look identical, but they mean something entirely different. We know which meaning is intended by observing the location of their stress. For instance, consider the expression “green house.” If it follows the normal sentence stress pattern where the noun is the most stressed, that is, if ‘house’ is stressed, the expression means a house painted in green color. But, if an unusual stress pattern is used, i.e., that ‘green’ is stressed, it means a glass building in which plants are grown. For example,

The green HOUSE on this street is for sale.

Most botanical gardens have a GREENhouse.


Stressed syllables will be indicated either by capital letters or by boldface. In general, compound nouns are stressed on the first word in the compound, and compound verbs and compound adjectives are stressed on the second word in the compound. But there are exceptions to this rule, depending on the stressed syllable of surrounding words. So in this chapter, we examine the stress patterns of compounds and compare them with descriptive expressions.