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I'm interested to learn why the following three-word phrases have stress on different words.

  1. "little straw house" (stress is on little and house)
  2. "small wooden house" (stress is on wooden)

Here are the sentences:

  1. The first little pig built a little straw house.
  2. The second little pig built a small wooden house.

How come the stress for the second phrase is not on small and house?

Can you please help?

share|improve this question
The stress is where you put it and depends on what you wish to emphasize. The stress could very well be on straw in the first sentence. – Jim Dec 29 '12 at 0:23
My default reading puts a bit more stress on the first and third words of both phrases (as well as a descending tone throughout each phrase). – Hellion Dec 29 '12 at 0:27
english stress assignment has been analyzed almost to death by linguists. would you like some references to consult? – jlovegren Dec 29 '12 at 0:28
I find the second of two adjectives is usually more stressed than the first, so to stress little in example 1 sounds rather odd; it's deliberately drawing attention to the size. Given the rather esoteric stress patterns of my Nigerian colleague, I guess which words/syllables are stressed depends entirely on region/dialect. – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '12 at 0:30
@AndrewLeach- Consider the following scenario: You and your friend are running away from a zombie. You say, "Quick hide in that straw house." Your friend says, "Which one there are 3 of them?" You say, "The little straw house." Now where did you put the stress? – Jim Dec 29 '12 at 0:31
up vote 4 down vote accepted

When you read the sentences in order, the important thing in sentence 1 is what is being built so house is stressed. The stresses on little and straw may be very similar, or may be slightly stronger on one or the other depending on the reader.

But when you start to read sentence 2, the context of 1 dictates where the stress in 2 should go. Both houses are small (little and small are essentially the same) and they are both houses thus wooden becomes the distinguishing characteristic and is therefore the word to stress.

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also: metrically, #1-second little #2-small and 1/2-house fall on strong downbeats; so strong that it takes a rise in pitch to shift the stress off of small onto wooden on the backbeat. – StoneyB Dec 29 '12 at 1:12
This is amazing! Thank you so much Jim. Your answer totally makes sense. – Nancy Dec 29 '12 at 1:13
This was my thought as well. As an exercise, try reading them in this order: The first little pig built a little wooden house. The second little pig built a little straw house. Sure, that would throw the big bad wolf for a loop, but it also might change what we stress in each of the sentences. – J.R. Dec 29 '12 at 2:31

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