Posted by: Jack Henry | December 10, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Syllable Quirk

Dear Editrix,

Last week, a client pointed out to me that when a word is used as both a noun and a verb that the emphasis will be on the first syllable if it is a noun and on the second syllable if it is a verb. For example, desert. As a noun it is pronounced DEH-zert, and as a verb de-ZERT. The client gave me other examples such as object, permit, and insult. I told her that it did not work with vomit, but perhaps I am just pronouncing it wrong as a verb. 👩 Can you expand on this a little?


Just wonDERing

Dear WonDERing,

I was not aware of this particular quirk with English. As you found, it doesn’t apply to all verb/noun pairs that are spelled alike, but it does happen with a lot of them. It happens often enough that there is a name for the process where the stress moves to the first syllable of a verb when it is used as a noun or adjective. This process is called “initial-stress derivation,” and it sounds a little like something you might catch if you walk into a patch of poison ivy. According to Wikipedia, you can find this occurring

in the case of several dozen verb-noun and verb-adjective pairs and is gradually becoming more standardized in some English dialects, but it is not present in all. The list of affected words differs from area to area, and often depends on whether a word is used metaphorically or not. At least 170 verb-noun or verb-adjective pairs exist….

Many of these have first syllables that evolved from Latin prepositions, although again that does not account for all of them.

Here are a few more examples, but for a more complete list, check out the entire article here:

Noun/Adjective Verb
COMbat comBAT
COMbine comBINE
CONsole conSOLE
DEfault deFAULT
ENvelope enVELOPE
INdent inDENT
INsult inSULT
MISprint misPRINT
OBject obJECT
PERvert perVERT
REbel reBEL
TORment torMENT
UPset upSET

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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