Learning English Pronunciation – Compound Adjectives

Episode 7 of The Music of English looks at syllable stress and compound adjectives.

Episode 7 – YouTube

Learning English pronunciation can be really confusing because we have so many compound words! Every time anglophones speak, before you know it, we’ve used another compound noun or verb or adjective or adverb. It’s crazy.

In this episode of The Music of English, I talk about compound adjectives, which can be short or long. They can be composed of adverbs, past participles, present participles, and numbers. And they’re very musical! So instead of trying to learn English pronunciation rules, listen for the melody and the rhythm—that charming little bounce up and down moving from stressed word to unstressed word and unstressed word to stressed word.

The stress in compound adjectives is particularly fun. The longer they are, the bouncier they get. When I say “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” I can feel myself singing in triplets—bumping along in groups of three syllables. I bounce off that first stressed syllable, drop down to the unstressed syllables, then run over to leap up to the next stressed syllable before dropping back down to the unstressed syllable(s). The rhythm and the melody are so rich.

up-to-the-minute reporting
Listen for the melody bouncing up and down between the high notes of stressed syllables and the low notes of unstressed syllables.
once-in-a-lifetime experience
Feel the rhythm of the bounce between the loud stressed syllables and the softer unstressed syllables.

Learning English Pronunciation Isn’t Always About the Music
Compound Adjectives with Numbers

There’s one issue in this episode that isn’t actually related to the music of English. It’s an error that speakers of ESL often make when they use compound adjectives containing a number. We say, “The boy is three years old.” But when we describe his age using a compound adjective, he’s a “three-year-old boy.” The word “year” is singular. We say, “I’m going on vacation for two weeks.” But when we say the same thing using a compound adjective, we take “a two-week holiday.” “Week” is singular. You won’t hear anglophones say “a three-years-old boy” or a “two-weeks holiday.” If you’re listening carefully, you won’t hear anglophones say a “15-minutes break” or a “three-years diploma.” You’ll hear us say a “15-minute break” and a “three-year diploma.” Advanced English pronunciation demands a different kind of listening—listening with attention to ensure you’re hearing what we’re actually saying, not what you think you should be hearing. It’s that intensive listening, along with verbal practice, that helps break “bad” habits.

Listening Practice Exercise

So for listening practice, I’ve chosen a modern song (well, okay, it was written in 1994), written like an old-fashioned (a compound adjective) “sea shanty,” a style of song that sailors used to sing as they worked on the merchant sailing boats. It’s called Garnet’s Home-Made Brew [Garnet’s Home-Made Brew song] and it’s about a truly awful tasting (another compound adjective) beer that turns everyone sick. Not only does it have lots of compound adjectives, but you’ll also hear compound adjectives with numbers. Read along with the song by downloading the lyrics [Episode 7-Compound Adjectives]. I identify the compound adjectives and explain the words and expressions you might not recognize. Then practise your English pronunciation by reading along with Episode 7. [Episode 7-Compound Adjectives].

And, as always, if you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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