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In the sentence "there's a big, scary lady...", I hear "scary lady" was said in a flat tone, while "big" was said in a higher tone but it's said quickly so I don't like there's any special emphasis on "big". So I'm not sure which one the speaker want to stress.

Please tell me Do you think which one is stressed?.

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In the audio file, it doesn't seem like either word is being stressed over the other one.

However, when multiple adjectives are used, there is an order in which they normally occur. Adjectives based on your own opinion tend to come first, followed by descriptions of size, and then physical qualities.

Based on this, I would say that as the adjective of "scary" seems to have been demoted from a matter of opinion to a matter of fact, it is the person's size that is being emphasised. If the size wasn't important, they would have just said "a scary lady", but this is a big scary lady.

I will add though, that there is a difference between how British and American English speakers might say "scary lady". It could be intended as a compound noun, like "rocking chair". With compound nouns, Americans have a tendency to put emphasis on the first syllable of the first word, whereas British speakers tend to put emphasis on the first syllable of the second word. For example:

American: Robin Hood.
British: Robin Hood.

This can lead to the final adjective sound like it is part of the noun, and any additional emphasis may be lost.

  • I disagree that the order of adjectives is marked; “scary big lady” sounds as strange to me as “green great dragon”. – Anton Sherwood Sep 10 at 15:09
  • @AntonSherwood Did you follow the link to the Cambridge dictionary that I included? The order of adjectives may be a rule of thumb, but a rule nonetheless, otherwise "Scary big lady" wouldn't sound wrong to you, which it does to me too. "Great green dragon" also sounds weird, but "great" is a comment on size, which would place it after colour as a physical attribute. "Fantastic green dragon" sounds right, yes? – Astralbee Sep 11 at 8:51
  • I was alluding to an anecdote of Tolkien: “I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great [huge] dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do.” – Anton Sherwood Sep 13 at 20:19
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Does it have to be either? Because I think in this sentence they have equal weight. "a big lady" could be a friendly cook "a scary lady" could be any of the local stereotypes of what makes a lady scary.

But in this case both big and scary are needed as adjectives to summon the complete picture of a lady who is both big and scary (and might derive some of the scariness from her size)

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