I have a question about the phonemic transcription for compound words in English. Is there a general rule? Specifically,

  1. Should there be space/hyphen/no space between each element in a compound?
  2. How to note the stress(es)?

I find there are differences in phonemic transcription of the same words on three credential websites. For example, "free-for-all" was transcribed as

  1. /ˈfriː fər ɔːl/ on https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/free-for-all?q=free-for-all
  2. /ˌfriː.fəˈrɑːl/ on https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/free-for-all
  3. /ˈfrē-fə-ˌrȯl/ on https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/free-for-all

It's not consistent between them. Oxford always puts spaces between each element, while Cambridge does not, and Merriam-Webster puts hyphens instead. The same for "son-in-law", "deep-fried", "forget-me-not".

I need an accurate phonemic transcription for "acid-base" (in "acid-base titration"/"acid-base neutralization"), and "acid-ionization". I don't have much knowledge in linguistics. I think a compound is considered as one word, so there should be no spaces between them. The stress should fall on the important element deciding the word meaning (like GREENhouse or greenHOUSE, BOYfriend or boyFRIEND). There should be only one main stress.

"Acid-base" has the two elements equally important. I have some proposals for it as

(A) /ˈæsədˌbeɪs/ as a common rule to main stress on the first-syllable;

(B) /ˈæsəd-ˈbeɪs/ using hyphen, as a hyphenated compound noun.

For "acid-ionization",

(A) /ˈæsədˌaɪənəˌzeɪʃən/

(B) /ˌæsədˌaɪənəˈzeɪʃən/

(C) /ˈæsəd-ˌaɪənəˈzeɪʃən/

What should I use?

Would you help me please? I've searched for scholar articles but not finding a resource yet. They barely mentioned about how to write the phonemic transcription.

I'm looking forward to your professional suggestions.

Much appreciated,

Anh Mai

  • 2
    For one thing, acid is /ˈasɪd/, and ionisation is /ˌaɪənɪˈzeɪʃən/ – the reduced vowel is /ɪ/ in both words, not /ə/. You say you need an accurate phonetic transcription, but all your transcriptions here are phonemic. An accurate (= narrow) phonetic transcription is by definition unique, representing one specific utterance of the word; while a broader, more generic phonetic transcription will describe tendencies in how a specific subset of speakers will pronounce the word in actual speech. But what you have here is neither – you’re not describing any actual pronunciation. Commented May 23, 2023 at 13:24
  • 3
    @JanusBahsJacquet fyi, British English has /aɪ/, not /ɪ/ after the first n in ionisation (ofc, we also spell it differently). See cubedictionary.org
    – Tristan
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 16:01
  • @Tristan True, it’s primarily reduced in AmE to begin with (although, despite the pronunciations listed in dictionaries, I’m fairly confident I’ve heard Brits use a reduced vowel in words like organisation, presumably through American influence). Commented May 23, 2023 at 16:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet yeah, in organisation it's definitely not uncommon to reduce it to /ɪ/, especially in rapid speech, and I would perceive this as an Americanism (albeit a widespread one). I guess the fact ionisation is less common a word means it's less likely to occur in rapid speech and so might resist that extra reduction better
    – Tristan
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 16:26
  • 1
    @amai it's definitely a very useful project. One of the co-creators, Geoff Lindsey also has a youtube channel where he discusses a lot of features of English (especially British English) phonetics in a way that's (in my opinion) both entertaining and informative!
    – Tristan
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 9:06

1 Answer 1


General practice is to use a space to separate words. The space is allowed inordertomakethetranscriptioneasiertoread but has no phonetic meaning. Stresses are marked in word-level transcriptions as in [ˈæsəd ˌaɪənəˈzeɪʃən], but the effect of intonation would be notated by some different notation. This is outside of what the IPA defines, but there are various conventions for English, for example Intonation in the Grammar of English by M.A.K. Halliday, Intonation by A. Cruttenden, and the ToBI system is used by many.

The differences you observe in transcription are partially regarding conventions (the Websters is a 'dictionary phonetic spelling' system, not an IPA transcription), and the other two are in error in various ways.

  • Thanks a lot. Your answer is helpful. I appreciate it.
    – amai
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 8:56
  • So, I understand your point that the space or hyphen do not have any phonetic/phonemic meaning. Would it be wrong to transcribe it as [ˈæsəd-ˌaɪənəˈzeɪʃən], using a hyphen? Or, a space is enough and [ˈæsəd ˌaɪənəˈzeɪʃən] is preferable, isn't it?
    – amai
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 9:03
  • 1
    Yes, simple space is enough, and you standardly see it in transcriptions, unlike hyphens.
    – user6726
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 14:16
  • Thank you very much.
    – amai
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 9:31

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