Wednesday 7 March 2012

merrily, primarily

What effect does the suffix -ly have upon word stress?

The usual answer is none. This suffix has no stress of its own. It leaves unchanged the stress of the stem to which it is attached.

From ˈhappy we form ˈhappily, from proˈfound we form proˈfoundly, from ˈaverage we form ˈaveragely, from ˌsureˈfooted we form ˌsureˈfootedly.

But there are occasional exceptions, at least for some speakers. We all pronounce ˈnecessary with initial stress. Some of us have a weak and compressible vowel in the suffix, thus ˈnesəs(ə)ri, while others have a strong one, thus ˈnesəseri etc. In the latter case you may say that the suffix has secondary stress, but I don’t think there are any mainstream speakers of BrE and AmE who place the primary stress on the suffix. (Caribbean English may be another story.) Yet for the adverb necessarily we see that many Brits and probably all Americans shift the stress from nec- to -ar-. (Personally, I belong to the presumably shrinking proportion of Brits who don’t do this, but feel it more natural to keep initial stress and a weak -ar- in necessarily ˈnesəsrəli.)
The same applies to other -ly adverbs formed from adjectives in -ary, as voluntarily, primarily, arbitrarily. It can also apply to those from at least some adjectives in -ory, as articulatorily, obligatorily, though not apparently perˈfunctorily. Now I have heard another exception: a TV commentator talking about resoˈlutely opposing something or other. Presumably, like the rest of us, he would stress the unsuffixed adjective on its first syllable, ˈresolute. So why wouldn’t he say ˈresolutely?

I don’t know how many other speakers would agree in having this stress alternation, or what other adjective-adverb pairs there might be for such speakers that follow the same irregular pattern.


  1. The m-w soundfile gives reso'lutely (and so would I), so this too is an Americanism.

  2. In the south of Ireland (for some people at least) genuine 'dʒɛnjuɪn becomes genuinely dʒɛnju'ɑɪnli.

  3. I think there are some indications of a rule here. I (an American) put secondary stress on the syllable that the stress shifts to when you add ily in military, voluntary, primary, arbitrary, articulatory, obligatory, and resolute. There is no secondary stress on the or in perfunctory, and the stress doesn't shift.

  4. But we don't all put initial stress on the initial syllable of resolute. We being English speakers in general. And me being one of those who doesn't.

    It could be the pronunciation with stress on the lute is an Americanism. In a check of online dictionaries, the two I checked that show that (in both cases as the 2nd pronunciation) are both dictionaries of American English.

    So, for me, it would be resoˈlute and resoˈlutely, with no stress shift.

  5. I have resoˈlute and resoˈlutely, but irˈresolute, if we take that to be a prefixed form.

  6. Isn't the reason why the first syllable of "resolutely" isn't stressed that English doesn't typically have more than two unstressed vowels in a row in a word? I find it difficult to say with the stress on the first syllable, along with "formidable".


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