I have the impression all Anglophones pronounce contrary with stress on the second syllable (cont-RARE-ee) when applied to a person's actions or disposition, as in:

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

...but it's nearly always stressed on the first syllable (CONT-rər-ee) in all other contexts.

It's still the same word, and I can't really see any difference in meaning apart from that which arises naturally by virtue of it being applied to a person, rather than something abstract/inanimate.

Is my impression correct? If so, is there any reason? It can't just be for the sake of that well-known nursery rhyme, can it?

I know I probably shouldn't ask, but are there any other cases where "the same word" has a different stress pattern according to context? (I'm not counting things like You don't haff to do that, where the consonant can change according to whether the word is stressed or not.)

  • Have to is always pronounced /'hæftə/, with stress, when it means must; the whole phrase is an infant modal auxiliary idiom. Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:21
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    @JohnLawler It isn't pronounced like that in British English.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:23
  • @FumbleFingers Contro-versy and con-TROV-ersy crop up. The latter seems more common these days, but I guess it was originally Contro-versy from Contro-VER-sial? Or was it vice versa?
    – Mynamite
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:37
  • @AndrewLeach: Sorry, forgot to specify which dialect. Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:47
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    @FumbleFingers, Wells 2008 (LPD-3), Roach, Hartman and Setter 2006 (CEPD-17): adj 'perverse, obstinate' 2nd syllable stressed conTRAry; adj 'different, opposed' and also a noun, 1st syllable stressed CONtrary.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 5:17

6 Answers 6


Apparently the original stress was on the second syllable, but poets bent its stress to whatever suited them. For example, both Chaucer and Shakespeare were known to use both versions (conˈtrary and ˈcontrary), although Shakespeare seems to have more often used the one with initial stress.

You can get all that from the OED’s elaborative note regarding the stress of contrary:

The later OFr. form contraire gave the variant contrair, long retained in the north. The original stress, after Fr. and L., wasconˈtra.rie, but the poets, from Chaucer to Spenser and Shakspere, use both conˈtra.ry and ˈco.ntrary (the latter the more frequent in Shaks.); of conˈtrā.ry, many instances occur in 17th c. verse; it is the only pronunciation recognized by Bailey (died 1742), and it is still app. universal in dialect and uneducated speech, esp. in sense (def#3) (def#b), which is now confined to these forms of speech and to the nursery. ˈCo.ntrary was used by Milton and Pope, and is given by Johnson (though he retained conˈtra.rily, conˈtra.riness, conˈtra.riwise) and in all later dictionaries.

  • Is OED really saying that my pronunciation in contexts like "You're just being con'trary" is "dialect and uneducated speech"? I've never felt it to be so (I'm crestfallen, since I always thought it was actually a bit 'sophisticated', being reminiscent of the French version! :) Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 20:30
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    @FumbleFingers Well, you can read the words as well as I can. But it does seem surprising, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t call it such myself, but I’m just an uneducated dialectic; guess you are, too. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 20:36
  • Well, I guess I there's no sense in shooting the messenger! I'll accept this answer because you've specifically made the points about this "uneducated/dialect" pronunciation being the original, and the fact that earlier poets were quite prepared to use whichever stress pattern suited their rhyme/metre. I'll forgive your edited version of *Shakspere, which I assume was made to get a clearer line layout (and is probably one of the variants the great man himself used anyway! :) Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 20:59
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    They haven't updated the entry for "contrary" for a while. If I understand correctly, the OED editors use data from Upton et al. 2001 for pronunciation. And Upton et al. 2001 say the following: contrary1 'opposite' CON-; contrary2 'perverse' BrE -TRA-, AmE two variants, CON- and -TRA-. Naturally, the dialectal and uneducated labels have been completely removed, as it should be.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 0:28

Mary Mary quite cont-RARE-ee is an adjectival use.

On the CONT-trary, this is a noun.

  • 2
    And to present a contrary view, this sentence has an adjective pronounced /ˈkɒntrərɪ/.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:44
  • I think it's the exaggerated stress that comes from being the penult in a children's rhyme. That and the fact that some derivational affixes can shift the stress, so that /-kən'trɛr-/ is a known allomorph, as in contrarian. Other than those contexts, however, I can't think of any examples with a stressed penult. Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 18:50
  • @tchrist OK, but your stress is still on the first syllable in my contrary sentence.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 19:03
  • @AndrewLeach Sure; I wasn’t saying otherwise, unless one equates unreduced vowel with stress. That’s why I wrote it with secondary stress so people didn’t fuss at me about that. :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 19:05

OED says firmly

contrary, adj., n., adv., and prep.
Pronunciation: /ˈkɒntrərɪ/

and lists many senses and meanings before getting to

A. 3b. Of antagonistic or untoward disposition, perverse, obstinately self-willed; contrarious. (Commonly pronounced conˈtrāry.) colloq. and dial.

which is the only sense with that pronunciation. There are even more senses after that, all with pronunciation /ˈkɒntrərɪ/. However, it implies the pronunciation given exceptionally at A.3b isn't influenced by the nursery rhyme, according to the citations given, although all occurrences are more-or-less contemporaneous:

1850 H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin vii, ‘Gals is nat'lly made contrary; and so, if you thinks they've gone one road, it is sartin you'd better go t'other.’
1875 W. D. Parish Dict. Sussex Dial. (at cited word), ‘She'd be just as contrairy as ever was a hog.’
1888 B. Lowsley Gloss. Berks. Words & Phrases (at cited word), ‘A turned contraayry an' 'oodn't lend his herse.’
1893 N.E.D. at Contrary, Nursery Rime Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow?
1920 R. Macaulay Potterism i. i. §4 They were like that; conceited and contrary.

There are many words where the noun and verb forms are pronounced differently: process, record, recess, compound, for example (and others, like divine, which are not). I can't think of another adjective with more than one pronunciation depending on context.

  • Hm, not in these parts it’s not. There is no schwa in that word: it would risk coming out too close to being homophone of the very common word, country [ˈkʰʌntʃɹi]. That means that for us, contrary ends the same as MARY or BERRY. Also, the end isn’t clipped into the SIT vowel, either. Hereabouts contrary comes out as [ˈkʰɑnˌtʃɹeɹi] in many and probably most speakers, although there may also be a [ˈkʰɒnˌtɹʷeɹi] version out there. That second one sounds “fussy” to my ear.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 24, 2013 at 19:01
  • @tchrist, you really say country [ˈkʰʌntʃɹi]? I mean with a sibilant?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 0:31
  • @AlexB. Sure! It’s like how trees comes out sounding like chrees: it palatalizes.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 1:42

Integral (adj) must, according to the AHDEL, be pronounced ˈɪntɪgrəl for the mathematical senses (which pronunciation I've always used for the calculus, but no other, usage/s) but may be pronounced ɪnˈtɛgrəl for other senses. Collins allows either pronunciation for any adjectival sense. Both the above dictionaries agree that the noun must be pronounced the first of these ways.

Aged is pronounced in two different ways, of course, in the meanings

'of age ...' and

'very elderly'.

Learned (of material) and learned (well educated) have been discussed elsewhere ( Are there any pairs of words like "beloved"/"belovèd", "learned"/"learnèd" that maintain a semantic difference to the present day? ).


Contr*ae*ry - with the stretched "a" (similar to the a with an umlaut in German) is an adjective describing a deliberate and habitual behavioural pattern in which a person or animal appears to enjoy doing the opposite of expected social norms or takes an opposing opinion just be antagonistic or, more mildly, plays devil's advocate unnecessarily. For any other usage it is simply "contrary", generally with the "schwa" sound, much like "tremendous".


In general, the difference in the two pronunciations of "contrary" boils down to whether the 'A' is pronounced like that in "rarity" or as a schwa. British English favours the latter, making the 'ary''erry' suffix sound like 'urry', like "categurry" for "category", "esturry" for "estuary", etc.

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