How Important is Stress?

No. I’m not talking about the kind of stress that makes you feel nervous and makes you sweat and causes your heart to speed up. I’m talking about the stress that we place on syllables when we speak—the way we make some syllables louder and longer than other syllables.

How important is that kind of stress in English?  It’s so important that the meaning of “hot dog” changes depending on how you say it.   You don’t believe me?  What if I say, “Look! There’s a hot dog!”. What do I mean?  Well, it depends.  There are two possibilities—at least.

Maybe I see a dog inside a car with the windows closed during the summer.   In that case, I’m probably worried about the dog because I know that it is very hot inside the car.

But maybe I’m hungry.  Maybe I’m thinking about lunch, and suddenly, I see someone selling hot dogs from a cart on a city street.  Maybe I say to my friend, “Look! There’s a hot dog!” because I’ve decided that I really want to eat right now, and a hot dog sounds very delicious.

So, what’s the difference?  Stress.

Listen to the two sentences:

 1. Look!  There’s a hot dog!  (There’s a dog in a car.)

2. Look!  There’s a hot dog!  (I’m hungry and want to eat!)

In Sentence 1, the word ‘dog’ is stressed.  In Sentence 2, the word ‘hot’ is stressed.

In Sentence 1, the word ‘hot’ is an adjective describing the noun ‘dog’.  In such a phrase, the second word, the noun, is stressed more than the adjective.  In Sentence 2, the word ‘hot dog’ is a compound noun.  A compound noun is made of two separate words that have their own meanings (in this case, ‘hot’, and ‘dog’). When combined, the two words have a new and unique meaning.  The compound noun ‘hot dog’ describes a sausage that is usually served on a bun.  It is something that we eat.  In compound nouns, stress is generally placed on the first word of the compound.

Think about the difference between a green house and a greenhouse.  A green house is a house that is painted green.  ‘Green’ describes the noun ‘house’. But ‘greenhouse’ is a compound noun.  It is a unique *thing*.  A greenhouse is a building where plants are grown.  It is usually made of glass to let the light enter easily.

Listen to the difference between these two sentences:

  1. He’s building a green house.

2. He’s building a greenhouse.

Now you try.  Listen only after you have tried.  Then check your pronunciation.  Descriptive phrases are on the left, and compound nouns are on the right:

  1. It’s a big, black bird.                                                                    It’s a big blackbird.
  2. He lives in the white house.                                                      He lives in the White House.
  3. My rich aunt lives on a real estate.                                          My rich aunt sells real estate.

A blackbird is a specific type of bird.  The White House is where the President of the United States lives.  It is a very specific white house.  Real estate is the word we use to describe property (land or buildings) that people buy and sell.  In each of these examples, you hear that the descriptive phrase (where the adjective describes a noun) on the left is pronounced differently than the compound noun on the right.

These are good guidelines for pronunciation, and compound nouns follow this pattern a lot of the time.  It’s important to remember, however, that not every compound noun follows the pattern, so you must always listen for how a particular compound noun gets pronounced.  Can you think of compound nouns that don’t follow this pattern?

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