I’ve learned about word stress and felt confused with the exercise in which there are some compound nouns having the stress in two ways and I have to explain their meanings depending on the stress. For example:

  1. English ‘teacher: a teacher who comes from England.
    1. ’English teacher: a teacher who teaches English.

And there are some compound nouns that I have to explain like that, but I think that only native speakers can do because I’ve learned no rule for that. Here’s the exercise:

  1. ’dark room vs dark ’room
    1. ’sleeping baby vs sleeping ’baby
    2. ’leather jacket vs leather ’jacket
    3. ’baby bro vs baby bro
  • I think 2, 3 and 4 are quite odd (strange). there is no change in meaning. Why do you use apostrophes for 1, 2 and 3?
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 16:45
  • 1
    Compounds like darkroom (where film is developed) and phrases like dark room (a room with no light or very little light) have different rhythms, not just emphasis, and so the compounds are spelled as one word, or hyphenated, and the phrases are two separate words. In speech, their prosodic features distinguish them from one another.
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 16:48
  • I agree with the last comment. These are not compound nouns, but syntactic constructions with a head and a modifier. Note also that in "a sleeping baby", "sleeping" is a verb phrase modifying the noun "baby".
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 18:26

3 Answers 3


When the modifier is stressed, for instance in darkroom, or smoking jacket, the modifier suggests a purpose instead of a quality. But I would suggest a slight modification of the original formula. The alternative to stressing the first word is not stressing the second word, but giving both words equal stress.

Darkroom -> A room whose purpose is to be dark; well, it's a room whose is purpose is to develop photographs, but this requires darkness
Dark room -> A room that is dark

Smoking jacket -> A jacket you wear while smoking
Smoking jacket -> A jacket that is smoking (because it's on fire)

Cooling tray -> A tray used for cooling things
Cooling tray -> a tray that is in the process of cooling (it is being cooled)

Sleeping baby -> This isn't a real thing, but if it were, it would be a baby that is used for sleeping: I can't fall asleep without my sleeping baby.
Sleeping baby -> A baby that is sleeping

Toy chest -> A chest for toys
Toy chest -> A chest that is a toy

Peach tree -> A tree that grows peaches
Peach tree -> A tree that is peach colored

Boardroom -> The room for the board of directors
Bored room -> A room that is bored/a room full of bored people

This one's a stretch
English teacher -> English (or teaching English) is the purpose of the teacher
English teacher -> a teacher who is English

There are many more examples that seem to fit together, but I can't quite figure out the pattern. Examples are green bean (a bean whose greenness is its purpose?) versus green bean (a bean that happens to be green - ex: "A lima bean is a green bean"); Superman (man whose superness is his purpose?) versus super man (a man who happens to be super).

  • One example I thought of was "a bad job," which could mean someone who has done a bad job at something, or someone who is stuck in a job that they don't like. But we normally rely more on context than stress to figure out which is which.
    – J.R.
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 20:02

I'm using italics here to show emphasis.

What is that in the picture, a towel rolled up?
-- No, it's a sleeping baby, you dummy. Can't you see its little nose?


Is that baby in the picture trying to crawl and giving up in despair?
-- No, it's a sleeping baby. It is lying on its tummy.


I disagree that English teacher changes meaning with use of stress on the first or second word.

It all depends on the broader context. If the speakers know that context, they will not confuse a teacher who teaches English with a teacher from England.

Whoever said this to you is mistaken.

When we emphasize either word, it could be to emphasize either of the two meanings.

Only your specific context will tell you whether you are talking about a teacher from England or a teacher who teaches English.

Please note: a darkroom is spelled as one word, a room that is dark, is a dark room. Here, stress can play a role. darkroom has a tonic stress on dark (tonic followed by falling stress), whereas the words in a dark room, can both have the same stress, unless a person is contrasting it to a light-filled room.

The candles in that dark room [usually, equally stressed] did not provide much light.

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