Skip to main content Accessibility help

Informativeness is a determinant of compound stress in English1

  • MELANIE J. BELL (a1) and INGO PLAG (a2)


There have been claims in the literature that the variability of compound stress assignment in English can be explained with reference to the informativeness of the constituents (e.g. Bolinger 1972, Ladd 1984). Until now, however, large-scale empirical evidence for this idea has been lacking. This paper addresses this deficit by investigating a large number of compounds taken from the British National Corpus. It is the first study of compound stress variability in English to show that measures of informativeness (the morphological family sizes of the constituents and the constituents' degree of semantic specificity) are indeed highly predictive of prominence placement. Using these variables as predictors, in conjunction with other factors believed to be relevant (see Plag et al. 2008), we build a probabilistic model that can successfully assign prominence to a given construction. Our finding, that the more informative constituent of a compound tends to be most prominent, fits with the general propensity of speakers to accentuate important information, and can therefore be interpreted as evidence for an accentual theory of compound stress.


Corresponding author

Authors' addresses: (Bell) Department of English, Communication, Film and Media, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge CB11PT,
(Plag) Anglistik/Sprachwissenschaft, Universität Siegen, D-57068 Siegen,


Hide All

The authors wish to thank Sabine Arndt-Lappe, Kristina Kösling, Gero Kunter and three anonymous Journal of Linguistics referees for their feedback on earlier versions. Special thanks also to Harald Baayen for discussion and support. This work was made possible by an AHRC postgraduate award (114 200) and a major studentship from Newnham College, Cambridge, to the first author as well as two grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (PL151/5-1, PL 151/5-3) to the second author, all of which are gratefully acknowledged.



Hide All
Arndt-Lappe, Sabine. 2011. Towards an exemplar-based model of stress in English noun–noun compounds. Journal of Linguistics 47.3, 549585.
Baayen, R. Harald. 2005. Data mining at the intersection of psychology and linguistics. In Cutler, Anne (ed.), Twenty-first century psycholinguistics: Four cornerstones, 6983. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Baayen, R. Harald. 2008. Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baayen, R. Harald, Piepenbrock, Richard & Gulikers, Leon. 1995. The CELEX lexical database (CD-ROM). Philadelphia, PA: Linguistic Data Consortium, University of Pennsylvania.
Bauer, Laurie. 1978. The grammar of nominal compounding with special reference to Danish, English and French (Odense University Studies in Linguistics 4). Odense: Odense University Press.
Bauer, Laurie. 1983. Stress in compounds: A rejoinder. English Studies 64.1, 4753.
Bauer, Laurie. 1998. When is a sequence of two nouns a compound in English? English Language and Linguistics 2.1, 6586.
Bell, Melanie J. 2005. Against nouns as syntactic premodifiers in English noun phrases. Working Papers in English and Applied Linguistics 11, 148. University of Cambridge, Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics.
Bell, Melanie J. 2011. At the boundary of morphology and syntax: Noun noun constructions in English. In Galani, Alexandra, Hicks, Glynn & Tsoulas, George (eds.), Morphology and its interfaces, 137167. Amsterdam & Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Bell, Melanie J. 2012. The English noun noun construct: Its prosody and structure. Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge.
Bell, Melanie J. & Plag, Ingo. 2012. Within-type variation in English compound stress: Towards an explanation. Ms., Anglia Ruskin University & Universität Siegen.
Bloomfield, Leonard. 1935. Language. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Bolinger, Dwight. 1972. Accent is predictable (if you're a mind-reader). Language 48.3, 633644.
The British National Corpus, version 3 (BNC XML Edition). 2007. Distributed by Oxford University Computing Services on behalf of the BNC Consortium. (accessed 20 May 2012).
Chomsky, Noam & Halle, Morris. 1968. The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.
Davies, Mark. 2004–. BYU-BNC (based on the British National Corpus). (accessed 20 May 2012).
Farnetani, Edda, Torsello, Carol Taylor & Cosi, Piero. 1988. English compound versus non-compound noun phrases in discourse: An acoustic and perceptual study. Language and Speech 31.2. 157180.
Fellbaum, Christiane (ed.). 1998. WordNet: An electronic lexical database. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fudge, Erik C. 1984. English word-stress. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Gagné, Christina L. 2001. Relation and lexical priming during the interpretation of noun–noun combinations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 27.1, 236254.
Gagné, Christina L. & Shoben, Edward J.. 1997. Influence of thematic relations on the comprehension of modifier–noun combinations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 23.1, 7187.
Giegerich, Heinz J. 2004. Compound or phrase? English noun-plus-noun constructions and the stress criterion. English Language and Linguistics 8.1, 124.
Gussenhoven, Carlos. 2004. The phonology of tone and intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gussenhoven, Carlos & Broeders, Ton. 1981. English pronunciation for student teachers. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff-Longman
Hastie, Trevor J. & Tibshirani, Robert J.. 1990. Generalized additive models (Monographs on Statistics and Applied Probability 43). London: Chapman & Hall/CRC.
Jespersen, Otto. 1909. A modern English grammar on historical principles. Part 1, sounds and spellings. Heidelberg: Carl Winter's Universitätsbuchhandlung.
Jones, Daniel. 1972. An outline of English phonetics, 9th edn.Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons.
Kingdon, Roger. 1958. The groundwork of English stress. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Krott, Andrea, Schreuder, Robert & Harald Baayen, R.. 2002. Linking elements in Dutch noun–noun compounds: Constituent families as analogical predictors for response latencies. Brain and Language 81.3, 708722.
Krott, Andrea, Schreuder, Robert, Baayen, R. Harald & Dressler, Wolfgang U.. 2007. Analogical effects on linking elements in German compound words. Language and Cognitive Processes 22.1, 2557.
Kunter, Gero. 2010. Perception of prominence patterns in English nominal compounds. Speech Prosody 2010 (102007), 14. (accessed 20 May 2012).
Kunter, Gero. 2011. Compound stress in English: The phonetics and phonology of prosodic prominence (Linguistische Arbeiten 539). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.
Kunter, Gero & Plag, Ingo. 2007. What is compound stress? In Trouvain, Jürgen & Barry, William J. (eds.), Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, University of Saarbrücken, 6–10 August 2007. Saarbrücken: Universität Saarbrücken.
Kutner, Michael H., Nachtsheim, Christopher J., Neter, John & Li, William. 2005. Applied linear statistical models, 5th edn. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill Irwin.
Ladd, D. Robert. 1984. English compound stress. In Gibbon, Dafydd & Richter, Helmut (eds.), Intonation, accent and rhythm: Studies in discourse phonology, 253266. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Ladd, D. Robert. 2008. Intonational phonology, 2nd edn.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levi, Judith N. 1978. The syntax and semantics of complex nominals. New York: Academic Press.
Liberman, Mark & Sproat, Richard. 1992. The stress and structure of modified noun phrases in English. In Sag, Ivan A. & Szabolcsi, Anna (eds.), Lexical matters (CSLI Lecture Notes 24), 131181. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Lipka, Leonhard. 1994. Lexicalization and institutionalization. In Asher, Ronald E. (ed.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics, vol. 4, 21642167. Oxford: Pergamon.
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. 1978. London: Longman.
Marchand, Hans. 1969. The categories and types of Present-day English word-formation: A synchronic–diachronic approach, 2nd edn.Munich: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
Olsen, Susan. 2000. Compounding and stress in English: A closer look at the boundary between morphology and syntax. Linguistische Berichte 181, 5570.
Ostendorf, Mari, Price, Patti & Shattuck-Hufnagel, Stefanie. 1996. Boston University Radio Speech Corpus. Philadelphia, PA: Linguistic Data Consortium.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, 5th edn. 1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. (accessed 20 May 2012).
Pan, Shimei & Hirschberg, Julia. 2000. Modeling local context for speech accent prediction. The 38th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, 233240.
Pan, Shimei & McKeown, Kathleen R.. 1999. Word informativeness and automatic pitch accent modeling. Joint SIGDAT Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing and Very Large Corpora (EMNLP/VLC'99), 148157.
Pennanen, Esko V. 1980. On the function and behaviour of stress in English noun compounds. English Studies 61.3, 252263.
Plag, Ingo. 2006. The variability of compound stress in English: Structural, semantic and analogical factors. English Language and Linguistics 10.1, 143172.
Plag, Ingo. 2010. Compound stress assignment by analogy: The constituent family bias. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 29.2, 243282.
Plag, Ingo & Kunter, Gero. 2010. Constituent family size and compound stress assignment in English. In Olsen, Susan (ed.), New impulses in word-formation (Linguistische Berichte Sonderheft 17), 349382. Hamburg: Buske.
Plag, Ingo, Kunter, Gero & Lappe, Sabine. 2007. Testing hypotheses about compound stress assignment in English: A corpus-based investigation. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 3.2, 199233.
Plag, Ingo, Kunter, Gero, Lappe, Sabine & Braun, Maria. 2008. The role of semantics, argument structure, and lexicalization in compound stress assignment in English. Language 84.4, 760794
Sampson, Rodney. 1980. Stress in English N+N phrases: A further complicating factor. English Studies 61.3, 264270.
Schreuder, Robert & Baayen, R. Harald. 1997. How complex simplex words can be. Journal of Memory and Language 37.1, 118139.
Shannon, Claude E. 1948. A mathematical theory of communication. The Bell System Technical Journal 27.3, 379423 & 27.4, 623–656.
Skousen, Royal & Stanford, Theron. 2004. AM::Parallel (am2.3). Brigham Young University. (accessed 20 May 2012).
Sweet, Henry. 1892. A new English grammar logical and historical. Pt. 1: Introduction, phonology and accidence. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wood, Simon N. 2006. Generalized additive models: An introduction with R. London: Chapman and Hall/CRC.
Zwicky, Arnold M. 1986. Forestress and afterstress. Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 32, 4662.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Linguistics
  • ISSN: 0022-2267
  • EISSN: 1469-7742
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed