Noun Compounds: Pronouncing 2 Words Together


What do a light bulb, door knob, and coffee mug have in common?  Yes, they’re all things that you would find at your workplace.  But I wasn’t referring to the items themselves.  Instead, I wanted you to think about their pronunciation.

Each of these words is called a noun compound, and they have a special pronunciation in American English.

Whenever you put two nouns together, like light + bulb, you make a compound, and the first word is pronounced stronger than the second: LIGHT bulb, DOOR knob, COFFEE mug.

You can tell the difference in the stress because if you change the first word to an adjective, then the second word gets stressed.  Listen to these examples: a broken BULB, a shiny KNOB, an empty POT.  Did you hear the difference in stress?

The rule is pretty simple, but students of English don’t always say these combinations right, which can confuse their American friends.  For example, can you distinguish a PIG barn from a big BARN?

Noun compounds are all around us: ink pen, book case, table leg, camera operator, a haircut...  Once you get going, you’ll notice them everywhere.

If you’d like to see more examples of everyday noun compounds, check out the list below.  In the meantime, keep up with your homework!


More noun compounds (Remember to stress the first word of these compounds!)
• parking lot, washing machine, driving school, thinking cap, rocking chair, moving company
• conference room, coffee break, school bus, grocery store, ice cream, case study, taxi cab
• chairperson, airport, wastebasket, cowboy, fieldgoal, firefly, deadline, teamwork, driveway

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.