Tuesday, 12 July 2011

distributive expletives

I was watching Judge Judy on TV the other day when she used the familiar expression expletive deleted. She stressed the first syllable of expletive, as I think Americans usually do: ˈeksplət̬ɪv. But in Britain I think we usually stress the second syllable, ɪkˈspliːtɪv, ek-, ək-.

I have no survey data to back up my impression that this is typically a BrE-AmE difference. Perhaps I ought to include it in my next pronunciation preference survey. Dictionaries tend to imply that both stressings are found on both sides of the Atlantic. Here’s the on-line OED:The only other familiar adjectives ending in -etive seem to be secretive and interpretive, which follow the stressing of the stem, ˈsecret or inˈterpret respectively, i.e. are stressed on the antepenultimate. There’s also suppletive, a term probably known only to grammarians, which I think most people on both sides of the Atlantic pronounce with penultimate stress, səˈpliːtɪv (the OED has an improbable sʌ- for the first syllable). This reflects the stress pattern of supˈpletion. However in LPD I do also give a variant with initial stress, though I really don’t know to what extent, if any, it is in use.

Words ending in -ative are notoriously idiosyncratic. The best I could manage in LPD was this.
In words of three syllables, the first receives the stress, and the suffix vowel is weak (ˈfricative, ˈvocative, ˈlaxative, ˈnarrative; exception creˈative). In longer words, the stress usually falls on the same syllable as in the underlying stem: acˈcusative, conˈsultative, preˈservative; ˈoperative, ˈqualitative, agˈglutinative, ˌarguˈmentative; adˈministrative. There is sometimes a vowel change (deˈrive — deˈrivative), and there are several exceptional cases (comˈbine —ˈcombinative, ˈalternate — alˈternative, inˈterrogate —ˌinterˈrogative, ˈdemonstrate — deˈmonstrative). Where the primary stress is on the last syllable of the stem, the suffix has a reduced vowel (ˌinterˈrogative); but otherwise in these longer words (ˈcumulative, ˈlegislative) the choice between weak-vowelled ət ɪv ǁ ət̬ ɪv and strong-vowelled eɪt ɪv ǁ eɪt̬ ɪv depends partly on social or regional factors, with British English RP tending to prefer ət ɪv, American English eɪt̬ ɪv: see individual entries.

Those in -itive, on the other hand, are straightforward. They are stressed on the antepenultimate, eg comˈpetitive, deˈfinitive, proˈhibitive, ˈsensitive, ˈpositive, inˈtuitive. I am tempted to say the same about those in -utive. We can certainly agree on conˈsecutive, eˈxecutive, diˈminutive. I think most people also say conˈstitutive, though there may be some who go for ˈconstitutive following the model of ˈconstitute. What about attributive, contributive, distributive, retributive? I use antepenultimate stress in these, but then I also stress the -trib- in conˈtribute, disˈtribute. I wonder about those many Brits who prefer initial stress in these two words. How many of them carry that over into ˈcontributive, ˈdistributive?


  1. For what it's worth, until reading today's blog I was only ever aware of the proposed UK version.

  2. I think the motivation for 'si:krɪtɪv is that secretive is felt to be cognate with secret, but not with secretion and the usual verb secrete. The OED lists three secrete verbs, of which only the biological term is at all common. I for one would recognise the 'hide' verb, but never use it.

    With ɪn'tɜ:(r)prɪtɪv the motivation is even clearer: the only cognates we use are interpreter and interpretation — and certainly not *interpretion.

  3. I would be tempted to claim that initial-stress in "constitutive" is more typical in AmE, but I'm not sure whether my brain is playing tricks on me.

  4. I've always gone with /ˈsʌplɨtɪv/, but then I'm pretty sure I've never heard it spoken (even by myself, thankfully).

  5. I said ɪkˈspliːtɪv when I first read the word, but then I heard other Americans saying ˈeksplət̬ɪv so I switched to that pronunciation. I don't like it as much though. On a different note, I like Judge Judy's accent.

  6. I used to think secreted "hidden" was from a verb secret, pronounced and spelt like the noun, differently from secrete "emit". My LPD2 lists /ˈsiːkrɪt/ with a warning sign for the base form secrete, without distinction of sense.

    For those like former me for whom it is a "non-spelling-pronunciation" it should only apply to the inflections, and not at all to the sense "emit".

  7. Thanks for your work and sharing the expertise
    as always.
    However in the posting,
    I may find an error which is an example of 'argumentative' as the stress falling on the same syllable of the stem.
    I hope this will help.

  8. Does anybody know how USDAW officially pronounces its full name Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers?

  9. 레오니스: you're right. A better example at that point would be representative.