Open compounds

Most authors agree that English compounds are a particularly difficult area of study regarding stress and accentuation. The difficulty mainly arises from the fact that compounds can be written in various ways and that it is not even clear what a compound really is. Taylor (1991) illustrates the spelling problem with a compound which can be written in three different ways: a) eggcup b) egg-cup c) egg cup.

So, compounds can consist of: a) one word; b) two hyphenated words, and c) two words separated by a space –these are called open compounds or two-word compounds-. The pronunciation is the same and, most importantly, the stress always falls on the same word irrespective of its writing.

As far as the application of the LLI rule is concerned, open compounds are the most likely to cause trouble. The problem is that they can be mistaken for phrases, that is, two words with different meanings put together. But their accentual patterns are quite different. Phrases have two stresses and the main one falls on the second word. Compounds are usually single-stressed, with the only stress usually placed on the first element.

Let’s see a famous example:

(250) sound_loud_speaker an ˈEnglish teacher (a person of any nationality who teaches English; noun + noun; only stress on the first element).

(251) sound_loud_speaker an ˌEnglish ˈteacher (a teacher of any subject who is English; adjective + noun; two stresses, the main one on the second element).


According to several authors (Gimson, Roach, Wells and Hewings, among others), the most frequent compound found in English is the combination of noun + noun, and in the majority of cases the stress falls on the first element. This structure serves different purposes. In the one which perhaps constitutes the most numerous group, the first noun delimits the meaning of the second (e.g. crime rate, phone call, drug addict).

(252) sound_loud_speaker “What’s this you have on your arm?” “I think it’s a mosquito bite.”

In another type of noun + noun compound, the first noun is the direct object of the action carried out by the agent in the second (English teacher, tin opener). There are also other possibilities because the classification of English compounds is really complicated [1]. The crucial point to bear in mind, however, is that when we find two nouns together they are quite likely to be a compound, and the stress will probably go on the first element (although there are exceptions, like orange juice). On the other hand, the structure adjective + noun normally amounts to a phrase, which means that the stress will normally fall on the second element (although there are exceptions, such as high school).

So when open compounds are found at the end of an IP, we do not normally accent the last noun but the next to last one. This might be disconcerting if we are trying to apply the LLI rule and haven’t realized that we are dealing with a compound because there are no exterior sign that shows it. Then it is convenient to remember that the reason why the LLI rule includes the expression lexical item instead of word is precisely that, to accommodate the fair number of open compounds that populate the English language. Here are three very well-known ones:

(253) sound_loud_speaker I’ve just bought a mountain bike.

(254) sound_loud_speaker He was convicted of child abuse.

(255) sound_loud_speaker His daughter is a ballet dancer.


Of course, as mentioned before, there are some exceptions where it is the second noun that takes the stress instead of the first. A full classification is beyond the scope of this work, so I will just make a brief reference to the most important cases:

  1. Names of people, places and institutions: ˌWoody ˈAllen, ˌHyde ˈPark, ˌcity ˈcentreˌ ˌHarvard Uniˈversity, ˌAddison ˈRoad (exception: compounds ending in street, like Oxford street).
  2. Compounds in which the first noun names the material or ingredient the second noun is made out of in man-made objects: ˌapple ˈpie, ˌfeather ˈpillow, ˌsilk ˈshirt ˌbrick ˈwall (exception: compounds ending in cake, bread and juice). Notice that if the object is natural instead of man-made, the naming of the material does not change the stress pattern (ˈsand dune, ˈsoap bubble).
  3. Compounds in which the first element names the place or time: ˌkitchen ˈsink, ˌworld ˈeventsˌ spring ˈfever, ˌafternoon ˈtea.

Another problem with compounds is that we are not completely sure what they consist of. To put it in Roach’s words, “there is no clear dividing line between two-word compounds and pairs of words that simply happen to occur together”. As a matter of fact, English speakers tend to make up compounds very naturally as they go along, especially noun + noun compounds, and they are more than apt to put the stress on the most likely place, that is, the first item. Moreover, when the compound happens to be at the end of the IP, the accent is always assigned correctly, namely, to the next to last noun.

Of all the open compounds recorded from natural sources for this work, only two –hunger strike and state visit– are registered as such in dictionaries. The others are marked as collocations or just included in sentences as examples (umbrella term, prostate cancer) or not marked at all (fear factor, bigamy novel). But it is crystal clear that the accent is always placed on the first element, so there is no question that the speakers are treating them as compounds.

(256) sound_loud_speaker Your uncle Pat doesn’t like cabbage because his stomach was so damaged by a hunger strike he was on (Colm Toibin; Enniscorthy, Ireland).

(257)  sound_loud_speaker Probably, he started with the idea or writing a story collection (Helen Cooper, Cambridge University).

(258) sound_loud_speaker It’s the fear factor (BBC4, unknown speaker).

(259) sound_loud_speaker And also my grandfather, my father’s father, had fought in the 1916 rebellion (Colm Toibin; Enniscorthy, Ireland).

(260) sound_loud_speaker I used the expression humour as an umbrella term (Cate Watson, university of Stirling).

(261) sound_loud_speaker The strongest fact about Zuckerman in this book and what determines so much of the action is that he has prostate cancer (Philip Roth; Newark, US).

(262) sound_loud_speaker This is a bigamy novel (Dinah Birch; University of Liverpool).


(263) This isn’t a state visit. / It’s a head-of-government visit (Nigel Hawthorne; Coventry, Warwickshire, UK).


(264) You’re in the hotel business (Chico Marx; New York, US).



[1] Gimson and Ortiz-Lira provide thorough accounts of it.


Previous Next