Is it acceptable to stress the second syllable of the numbers when counting them in a row? ThirTEEN, fourTEEN...

  • 1
    IMHO, yes (but not specifically for counting in a row). Because at times, if not correctly pronounced and if the context is not enough, thirteen might be heard as thirty, fifteen as fifty, etc. (especially if the /n/ sound is pronounced weakly).
    – shin
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 8:47
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    That emphasis is way for the counter to preserve his or her concentration on the task. It could just as easily be SIXteen, SEVenteen, EIGHTteen... The effect is rather like that of a work song.
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 11:37
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    I'd say it's unusual – but that doesn't make it unacceptable. But "acceptable" isn't quite the same as "recommended," either. Still, if you're not going to reveal the reason for your non-standard emphasis, I don't think there's much more I can say on the matter.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 16:33
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    I'd agree with @J.R.regarding context. If I'm counting for speed, I will emphasize the first syllable, because that's the most important for keeping place. Once I hit twenty one, I'll start emphasizing the third syllable. It's faster to mumble the twenty part, and I'll have said it ten times before I get to thirty, so I won't forget where I am. And maybe this is where you're getting the idea to emphasize the teen part, because for other numbers you're emphasizing the end. However, if you were counting slowly, you might drag out the teen while you wait for the next object to number.
    – mathewb
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 18:20
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    If you play hide and seek you may want to stress the first syllable to convey some i formation. But you might as well not, depending on what type of player you are ;) Altogether an interesting question. If we count objects, the pattern we choose may depend on how our short term memory works best. Stressing the first syllable could be a way to keep your attention on the task. But stressing the last syllable might as well be a way of actually focusing on the first part. The stress would then rather signal how our mental focus on the first syllable leads to an unrestricted stress of the second.
    – user54542
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 8:27

2 Answers 2


This exemplifies a linguistic phenomenon linguist Jonathan McWhorter has brought up recently: the 'backshift' (not a technical term, he cautions, but still quite descriptive I feel!).

In a recent interview, he says:

John McWhorter: You know, the backshift is a lot of fun. Basically, when you put two words together--if you are talking about, say, a board that's black--first you are going to say, 'Well, that's a black BOARD.' But, suppose there are is some particular kind of board that's black, that is very specific and has very particular function--it becomes what we call a thing in society: suppose what you have, for example, the board that's black, that you hang on the wall, and you write on with chalk. Well, if you are going to say, 'black BOARD,' enough, because it's something so well established, then the accent shifts to the first one instead of the second one. And so you say, 'A BLACKboard.' Notice that you would never say, 'Go write that up on the black BOARD.' Or, you imagine somebody writing it on a wooden plank that is painted black. It's the black BOARD. And that shift backwards, which I call the backshift--that is not an official linguistics term, but I almost wish that linguists would [use it].

To summarize, if a compound word is just starting to be used, the emphasis follows natural speech patterns and goes at the end of the compound word. However, as usage increases, the emphasis often shifts to the first part of the compound word.

In your case, FOURteen is such a commonly used compound emphasis shifts backwards. (Note: the emphasis is still pretty slight or even neutral in most cases though; it's not as 'hard' of an emphasis as the all caps makes it sound :) )

Other examples from this interview: - 'boy SCOUTS' turned to 'BOYscouts' - 'hot DOG' => 'HOTdog' - 'cupBOARD' => 'CUPboard'

Listen to the whole segment if you have time: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2017/08/john_mcwhorter.html

(from 42:50 to 46:35)


You can, of course, but there's no native-English-speaker reason why you would. It seems like it would make more sense to emphasize the differences between the numbers so that it's easier to keep track,

SIXteen, SEVENteen, EIGHTeen

and so on.

But if you want to do it differently, there's no rule against it. It just sounds unusual.

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