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I have observed that there are, at least, two patterns of pronunciation for words ending in -ative:

  1. The first syllable is stressed and the suffix is pronounced as /eɪtɪv/ (e.g. qualitative)
  2. The second syllable is stressed and the suffix is pronounced as /ətɪv/ (e.g. declarative)

Is there a way (other than memorizing them all, of course) to know how a certain word ending in -ative is pronounced?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

You're close. It depends on the stress of the syllable before the -ative. If there is primary or secondary stress, then you have an unstressed a in the -ative. Otherwise, the a would be stressed and get its full /ei/ sound. Note that some words have different pronunciation patterns in different dialects.

  • NA-tive (0 before)
  • cre-A-tive (weak before)
  • REL-a-tive (strong before)
  • con-SERV-a-tive (weak-strong)
  • LEG-i-SLA-tive (strong-weak)
  • RE-pre-SEN-ta-tive (strong-weak-strong)
  • ad-MIN-i-STRA-tive (weak-strong-weak) but also ad-MIN-i-stra-tive

Here is a link to all the -ative words in the COCA.

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Of course you have to know about the accent in the previous syllable... These are things noted by foreigners learning english. Different accents in declaration and declarative. But same accent in quality and qualitative. –  GEdgar Dec 28 '11 at 13:46
    
Indeed, there's no getting away from the fact that some learning is involved. The rule probably just pushes the problem back another level, but it is what Otavio asked for. –  Brett Reynolds Dec 28 '11 at 13:49
    
Isn't /ˈkwɒlɪteitɪv/ (or /ˈkwɒlɪˌteitɪv/) a US - or at least non British pronunciation-? I've heard /ˈkwɒlɪtətɪv/ in Britain. –  Laure Dec 28 '11 at 17:34
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