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.