In English adjective-noun combinations the noun commonly carries the main stress:

  • a big HOUSE
  • a beautiful DOG

An exception to this rule are adjective-noun combinations that are treated as one unit, and the adjective carries the main stress:

  • a HOT dog
  • the WHITE house

However, I've also noted this stress pattern with other examples (the links are to Youtube videos):

I have noted this stress pattern in a number of examples, and my impression is that it's more common in American than in British English. Each of them might be interpreted contrastively. In the second example the speaker seems to imply that Chinese food is somehow more fun or enticing than, say, Italian food. Similarly, in the first example that information that the speaker is talking about black men, not white men seems to be key.

But I've always found this stress pattern surprising, to me the context in these examples doesn't warrant this kind of contrastive focus (as in "No, I want ChiNESE food, not ITAlian food."). Then again, I'm not a native speaker. So my questions are:

1) Does this stress pattern strike anyone else as remarkable, or is it just me?

2) Is "contrastive stress/focus" the best analysis of these examples?

3) Is it more frequent in American English than other varieties, such as British English (note that all the examples are from American English)?

4) Has this stress pattern become more frequent in the last decades or so?

If this stress pattern is something more than just ordinary contrastive focus, references would be appreciated (but not strictly necessary ;)

  • Good question. It would be nice if you could link to the specific time points in the video where the word is spoken. You can do that by right-clicking on the little ball that moves as the video is played, then picking "copy URL at current time". Without having listened to your examples, I would say this probably has to do with contrastive stress or focus, as you suggest. (One thing to consider (but not confuse with contrastive stress) is so called American "Valleyspeak", where the tone often rises at the end of a simple statement: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valleyspeak#Intonation
    – Cerberus
    Oct 24, 2013 at 11:59
  • As a native speaker of British English, I can contribute some information to point 3 (but not answer all of it). Most of those read just as naturally to me, the biggest exception being "a CRAzy GUY".
    – Ryno
    Oct 24, 2013 at 15:57
  • @Ryno Thanks! Could you perhaps elaborate on why you find "a CRAzy guy" exceptional? (if possible - I know that native speakers intuition sometimes doesn't immediately lend itself to further analysis)
    – robert
    Oct 24, 2013 at 17:23
  • 1
    @hippietrail: Your wish is my command!
    – Cerberus
    Oct 25, 2013 at 9:30
  • 1
    @hippietrail Yes, one can make a distinction in that stress is a property of syllables in words or short phrases (so-called phonological words), and focus a property of words in sentences/utterances (so-called intonation phrases). However, the latter can also be called 'sentence stress', although AFAICS this term has become less common. So I guess I might as well change the title of my question since it's ultimately do with focus...
    – robert
    Oct 25, 2013 at 17:14

1 Answer 1


I'm a native speaker of American English, and none of the examples you have given strikes me as marked in any way.

I don't know what the latest discourse-structure-based theories of focus would say about these examples, but my intuition is that they illustrate focus avoidance on "given" constituents. men, food, and guy are somehow "given" in their respective contexts. It's true that those words may not have literally been uttered yet at the time they appear in the discourse, but there is something generic about the entities to which they refer in those contexts, in a pragmatic sense.

What is informative in the first discourse, for example, is the race of the men. Leading up to the mention of the men, the expectation is built up that St. Nicholas is accompanied by some perhaps unexpected entity. His being accompanied by men is not so remarkable (with the introduction of the phrase accompanied by one is biased to expect some category of human), but the fact that they are black is what the speaker expects to be novel and informative for the listener. It's true that one could think of black as being contrasted with other races, but I don't think this is contrastive focus in the usual sense, since the speaker isn't explicitly contrasting it with another specific race. If St. Nicholas were accompanied by six to eight black sheep, I would expect the prominence marking to shift to sheep, since people are not usually accompanied by sheep. In that case the focus would actually be ambiguous--it could be marking narrower focus on just sheep or broader focus on the entire constituent black sheep.

In the second example, food is somewhat expected after We've ordered..., but the fact that it's Chinese is informative (and in this particular case enticing--it's a selling point to get the listener to help the speaker) to the listener. Again, had they ordered Chinese dancers, I would have expected dancers to be prominent.

In the third example, the characters have all been talking about the person who has breached their security--the guy. Even more than in the previous two examples, the guy part of crazy guy is given explicitly in the discourse--he's the topic of their conversation. I should mention that, to my ears, the prominence pattern is actually not so clear in this example--I can convince myself that the speaker is putting prominence on crazy or that he's putting it on guy (it's not just about which has higher pitch--sometimes prominent syllables can get lower pitch in English). If he is placing prominence on guy, I would believe that he is contrasting it with the terrorists mentioned by the other character--"not a terrorist (or a group of terrorists)--just a guy".

I don't have data on this, but my impression is that these focus phenomena are not unique to American English. I've definitely heard British speakers use similar patterns. The same holds for earlier generations of speakers.

  • +1 I agree. In the example of Chinese food, the word enticing is key. It is the tone of someone who is trying to get some sympathy for his position and at the same time making his suggestion sound attractive. This is done by means of the focal/whiny intonation in Chinese food. It override the normal distribution of stress within a word pair, and it falls on Chinese because that is the focal/contrastive element. In the crazy guy example, the speaker puts extra stress on this too: THIS is just a CRAZY guy. Again, it is a kind of sentence intonation that overrides micro-intonation.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 24, 2013 at 16:06
  • @Cerberus I half-agree with you, haha! If you ask a native speaker to read the sentence "I ordered Chinese food" out-of-the-blue, I would bet money that Chinese will still be prominent, even without the context set up in the clip. It is true, though, that the "enticing" aspect of the utterance in the example serves to heighten the degree of prominence. Oct 24, 2013 at 16:46
  • Hmm I'm saying it to my self now...I guess it is possible without any special connotation. Stress has to be on chiNESE, then. But CHInese FOOD also sounds natural. I'm suffering fron semantic/phonetic satiation now. Listen to these three videos, and you will hear chiNESE FOOD, CHInese FOOD, and chiNESE food, resp. youtube.com/watch?v=1psMts4jcpQ&t=33 , youtube.com/watch?v=IVAdjzzPM4A&t=22 , youtube.com/watch?v=WB_wRiUCytE&t=36 .
    – Cerberus
    Oct 24, 2013 at 18:46
  • The term stress can be confusing, because it can refer to prominence on a syllable within the context of a word, prominence vs. lack of prominence of successive words in a phrase, or primary prominence of one prominent word over all the other prominent words in a phrase. That last type of prominence is known as nuclear accent, and that is what's relevant for the focus patterns discussed above. The word Chinese gets the nuclear accent in all of the examples you provided. Oct 24, 2013 at 19:18
  • Whether the primary syllable stress falls on the first or second syllable in Chinese usually depends on what follows it. If the following word bears prominence of the second kind I mentioned (sometimes called word emphasis), especially if its first syllable bears primary syllable stress (which a monosyllabic word's first syllable trivially does), the primary syllable stress in Chinese may shift to the first syllable. This is a well-known phenomenon known as the Rhythm Rule. Oct 24, 2013 at 19:37

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