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.