Tuesday 12 October 2010


As I lay in bed this morning, listening half-asleep to the parliamentary report on the radio with a discussion of the coming cuts in welfare payments, I was jerked awake by the realization that the expressions child benefit and housing benefit have different stress patterns.

The reporter talked about possible reductions in child BENefit, and then later about the question of HOUSing benefit. I realized that these stressings agree with my own intuitions on how to stress these particular compounds. And there’s no logic in it.

It’s very important when discussing the stressing of compounds to disregard two well-known effects that can cause the default (lexical) pattern to be overridden: (i) contrastive stress and (ii) stress shift.

For anyone who shares my intuitions about the two kinds of benefit, contrastive stress would nevertheless lead us to say, for example,
They get not only HOUSing benefit but also CHILD benefit.

She works in local government for the HOUSing department. Her job involves the determination of housing BENefits.
—both of which go against the default pattern.

Similarly, just as we have AFTernoon TEA, FIFteen PEOPle and TOWN Hall STEPS (despite afterNOON, fifTEEN, and Town HALL), we might say
There are going to be severe CHILD benefit reDUCtions.

Having got those two disturbing factors out of the way, I am left with the conclusion that as dictionary entries I would give ˌchild ˈbenefit but ˈhousing ˌbenefit. I have no idea how widely these patterns would be agreed to by other speakers of BrE, and I wonder what non-Brits unfamiliar with these expressions would say.

The stressing of compound nouns is a notorious difficulty for EFL. Although the basic rule is clear (the main stress goes on the first element of a compound), there are not only several well-established classes of exceptions (e.g. if the first element names a place, time, material, or ingredient), but there is also a long tail of cases where all one can say is that there is no firmly established pattern. We can coin new compounds on the fly (or indeed recoin compounds of whose existence we are unaware), and it may be impossible to determine whether or not there is some implicit contrast involved or what you would say in a contrast-free context. Meanwhile we have some well-known sets of illogicalities.
I’ve sent her a BIRTHday card.

She bought me a BIRTHday present.

Here’s some birthday chamPAGNE for you!

I’ve written him a birthday TRIBute.

I quite often get emails from NNS EFL teachers asking me for the stress pattern of this or that compound not listed in dictionaries. I may supply an answer, but I would be less than honest if I claimed to be always entirely certain whether it was the correct answer. For example, Martín Capell wrote
Could you please tell me whether I should say FAmily MEMber or FAmily member. In other words, is this compound single- or double-stressed?
I replied
I don't think there's any fixed pattern. On the whole I’d go for “family MEMber”.
Other NSs might disagree.


  1. “family MEMber” - without any implication of contrast, a bit strange.

    Anyway, I think another factor is how far the compound is an ad-hoc formation or an established term.

  2. Speaking as a NS:

    I agree with Lipman; I'd say 'FAMily member'. E.g. "Are there any FAMily members coming to the wedding?"
    If someone stressed MEM, I would think, 'As opposed to family what?'

    I agree with you about 'child BENefit' and 'HOUSing benefit'. One small idea that's just come to me: Could it be to do with English NS tendency to even out stress distribution? since there's a syllable between 'HOUS' and 'ben', and there is also stress on 'ben' in 'housing benefit', only not as much as on 'HOUS'. A thought, anyway.

  3. I've noted that native speakers usually seem to pronounce "Blackrock" (a village near Dublin) stressing both syllables, as if they were talking about a black rock. Before ever hearing the name pronounced, my instinct was to pronounce the second syllable as unstressed, and maybe even with the vowel reduced to schwa.

  4. Blackpool, Blackburn, Blackham etc. give you every encouragement, army. With two stresses it should be Black Rock, like White Rock, which has been in the news along with the tragic Hastings Pier, or Little Rock, Alabama. But what can we expect of the spelling, with black'currant as opposed to ˈblackberry?

    But with compounds we can only agree that "it may be impossible to determine whether or not there is some implicit contrast involved or what you would say in a contrast-free context." I wonder whether there really is such a thing as a contrast-free context in this context. I agree with Lipman about “family MEMber” - without any implication of contrast. There always seems to be some sort of presupposition or other: in this case about an in-group as opposed to an out-group, and that also applies to Hannah's example about the presuppositions for weddings.

    It's a bit hard to dissect out these implicit contrasts, isn't it? In the present climate I would expect to be hearing 'HOUSing benefit' and 'CHILD benefit' most of the time, and 'child BENefit' sounds that much more implausible to me. Isn't this why you mark variable stress of this sort in LPD? You can't account for every case where it may be contrastive stress superimposed on already variable stress like armchair, or on as obvious an existing contrast as 'birthday present' and 'birthday champagne'., which itself is probably only obvious because of the balance of probabilities.

  5. Lippman

    “family MEMber” - without any implication of contrast, a bit strange.

    No need to de-stress FAMily. For me, both words carry stress but the main stress is on member. The same for team member, club member etc.

    Perhaps because of my age, I hardly ever use the term. For the singular I say relative or relation. When I hear speak of two or more family members, I think of them as related to someone who is salient in the discourse — or, failing that, as related to each other. If the status is in focus, I would not say 'Is she a family member? but rather Is she a member of the family? Instead of the collective plural I say family. When family members is used in a collective sense, I simply say family — with plural concord, naturally.

    It seems to me as if younger speakers have allowed this ordinary compound noun phrase to progress to a lexical compound unit. This has resulted in a change of stress pattern analogous to the orthographic progression from, say, black bird to blackbird. In my speech the progression hasn't happened yet, and may never do so.

    In your terms, it's still an 'ad-hoc formation' for me, and not yet 'established'.


    For the reasons above, if I heard

    Are there any FAMily MEMbers coming to the wedding?

    I would think as opposed to the bride and groom. What I would say myself is

    Are there any family coming to the wedding?

  6. I really think it depends on how far the compound is felt to be a fixed term on the continuous scale. Unfortunately, even then, we'd probably only be able to see trends.

    There are also regional differences, of course. Only today I heard in a Friends episode "only 'child, right?" Quite startling. The OED online gives 'only child for BrE and 'only 'child for AmE.

  7. As a speaker of BrE but who grew up outside the UK and never heard either phrase spoken so far, I would have guessed 'child benefit, 'housing benefit. (For example, I would imagine "She had to live off 'child benefit".)

  8. CHILD benefit for me, likewise BIRTHday PREsent and BIRTHday champAGNE.

    I have no idea what they say in Little Rock, Alabama, but the much larger and more famous city of Little Rock, Arkansas, is definitely "LITtle rock", as if it were spelled "Littlerock". It's named after an actual rock, "La Petite Roche", used as a landmark and river crossing.

    The city of Newark, Delaware, is "NEW ARK", as opposed to Newark, New Jersey, which is "NEWark", supposedly because they were on the same railroad line and needed to be distinguished by railroad conductors and others.

  9. Philip, that's the "naive default", and certainly correct for compounds on the ad-hoc end of the spectrum. The deviations further to the term end probably wouldn't even reveal the non-native speaker, but if you choose the non-default stress where it isn't common, you immediately sound strange, as in American or British &c. (to the respective other), or Greek.

    (Did you mean you're a native speaker in exile, or that you learnt (consistently British) English as a foreign language?)

  10. FWIW -- As an AmE speaker with no knowledge of child or housing benefits, I would say CHILD benefit and HOUSing benefit.

  11. Lipman

    I heard in a Friends episode "only 'child, right?" Quite startling.

    Not at all startling to this ˌonly 'child. I suppose I must have head the OED-reported pronunciation, but it made no impression. I honestly thought that 'only ˌchild didn't exist.

    [I'm a British (of England) native speaker in my mid sixties with a near-RP accent.]

  12. Just now a BBC radio news bulletin reporting on the trapped Chilean miners has spoken of their .FAMily 'MEMbers.

  13. Child benefit superseded family allowance - maybe it inherited its stress pattern? In which case, the question becomes: why ˌfamily aˈllowance?

  14. I grew up in the UK and hence am familiar with child benefit despite having lived in the US for the last 13 years. I would unhesitatingly say CHILD benefit. As far as I can remember, this is how I pronounced it when I lived in England. child BENefit sounds very odd to me.

    For comparison, I still say ice CREAM, rather than the US-preferred ICE cream. For "only child", either stress pattern sounds OK.

  15. I recall seeing an article years ago that mentioned a curiosity about the pronunciation of street-name compounds. People were given a list of street names (Oak Road, Oak Avenue, Oak Street, Oak Lane, etc.). In almost all cases, most were stressed as follows:

    Oak ROAD, Oak LANE, Oak AVENUE

    But there was an odd man out: OAK Street.

    I've tried it myself with several people (all American English speakers), and it seems to hold true. I don't think the article's author had any explanation.

  16. Ingenioso hidalgo12 October 2010 at 23:28

    @ professor Wells

    I'm not a native speaker, and I certainly agree that knowing how to stress compounds and phrases correctly is very difficult.

    In LPD there's a useful note on "Compounds and phrases", with rules and exceptions and examples.
    As you say, "the basic rule is clear": "the main stress goes on the first element of a compound" and on the second element of a phrase.

    But, what is a compound, and what is a phrase, exactly? How can we define them?

    For example, why on earth is "weekly LESSons" a phrase, but "MUSic lessons" a compound? It's a bit of a mistery to me.

  17. MWarhol

    I don't think many British speakers say oak STREET either. I certainly don't.

    The only time (I think) that we destress road is in the descriptive the HIGH road.

  18. Ingenioso hidalgo:
    in general,
    noun + noun = compound
    adjective + noun = phrase
    Since "music" is a noun, "music lesson" is a compound noun. Since "weekly" is an adjective, "weekly lesson" is a phrase. So MUsic lesson, but weekly LESSon.

  19. Ingenioso hidalgo

    Music lessons all have something in common. Weekly lessons as a whole are totally different from each other.

    Grammatically, music lessons can only be understood a a single expression. We can't stick music in front of just any old noun unless there's some explanatory context. For example, I can imagine what a music tree might be — but I can't be sure. But it's enirely obvious what's meant by a weekly lesson.

    What John calls a compound is a bit like an idiom. It's not so difficult to work out the meaning, but we do rely a little on recognising the familiar. As it happens, music lesson can't denote a lesson delivered in song with instrumental accompaniment, but we need a tiny bit of lexical knowledge to see that.

    Having said that, I'm afraid you do have a point. Even the small sample of native speakers posting on this thread manage to disagree on whether a particular couple of words constitute a compound or a phrase. All you can do is to recognise how native speakers treat such combinations. You can then use John's rule to reason backwards: if it's stressed on the first word, then it's a compound.

  20. MWarhol: Perhaps you answered your own question: In the second line you referred to street-names, not avenue-names. Street is the generic term. If you live in a town, that thing you're trying to cross is a street. In a rural environment it's likely to be a road instead.

    Avenue, Boulevard, and the like get stressed because they contrast with the expected term.

  21. What about
    - papal election
    - presidential murder
    - professorial appointment?
    Where's the stress in (my guess is indicated)
    - 'polar bear
    - 'solar panel
    - fi'nancial advisor
    - 'tidal wave

  22. @ David: I'm an American who has always said ˌonly 'child. The other way sounds unusual to me too.

    @ VP: I have heard Americans who say ice CREAM (of course that's always going to happen in a country of over 300 million people). My grandmother does, for instance. Actually, to me it even sounds like she syllabifies it differently as well so it becomes homophonous with I scream with the stress on scream obviously. I'm not sure why she does that (yes, I know about the song).

    @MWarhol: I pronounce street-name compounds in just the way you described. I never noticed that. It's nice to have the ears of a NNS for these things. I think that's what you are anyway.

  23. Kraut: I would give all of these end-stress, i.e. treat them as phrases. So for example ˌsolar ˈpanel. (But I know that many other NSs use front-stress in "polar bear" and "tidal wave".)

  24. MWarhol etc: might I venture to recommend my intonation book? There is an extensive discussion of this topic in §3.5, with exercises.

  25. (Demmit, have to get these Wells books already.)

    John W., do you know if there's a tendency to shift the stress to the second part, especially if a term or a name, during the 20th ct? Or is there maybe a register or subaccent factor, too? I'm thinking of words such as Westminster, where some people stress both parts or even only the second.

  26. John, wonderful blog, I love it, being a phonetics lecturer.

    I have a question: Are you talking about word-level stress? If so, what about the issue of primary & secondary stress? And is there a ternary stress? Or are you talking about sentence-level stress?

  27. Ingenioso hidalgo13 October 2010 at 13:54

    @ professor Wells

    I see. Thanks for your answer. It's clear now.

    @ David Crosbie

    Thank you. That's what I had thought, too. What you say must be true, but, as you seem to admit yourself, the difference is rather subtle and often controversial.

  28. DaCentaur: I'm talking about two things: lexical stress, which is in principle unchanging for any given lexical item; and what happens in connected speech, where some lexical stresses surface as accents (with pitch prominence), others just as rhythmic beats or nothing. See my intonation book for extensive discussion...

  29. @mallamb:
    Indeed; the suburb is called "An Charraig Dhubh" in Irish (where "an" is the definite article and "dubh" means "black", AFAICT). God knows why in English it's spelt as one word.

  30. Again, John, I'm witnessing my native tongue unravel into chaos before my eyes. I have absolutely no clue at this point why on earth I've learned to say child BENefit despite HOUSing benefit or TAX benefit. I do indeed say AFternoon TEA, FIFteen PEOple and TOWN Hall STEPS.

    I really need there to be a logic to this!!! Please help me! I'm losing my mind! LOL! You do have a good answer up your sleeve, John, right?

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  32. John, wonderful blog. I wanted to ask you a question about compounds. Can you please tell me how to stress "chocolate chip cookie"?

  33. Can you explain stress-shift in noun compounds? Thanks!


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