I was speaking with someone today and he brought up the TV show "South Park", and he emphasized the "Park" whereas most people (and the show itself, I believe) emphasize the word "South". This got me thinking: is putting the emphasis on the wrong word considered a form of mispronouncing a phrase? I realize that the "correct" way to say a word or phrase is pretty subjective (especially considering dialects), but I guess the question can be limited to consider different emphasis within one dialect.

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    I'm puzzled: try as I might, I simply cannot say "South Park" with any significant difference in stress between the two words. – Marthaª May 5 '11 at 17:33
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Consider the word Catholic, for example. If you put the stress on the second syllable (as it is in Catholicism), I think you will find very few people happy with your pronunciation.

So, yes — misplaced emphasis or stress can lead to significant mispronunciation.

On the other hand we have words like controversy, where the stress may come on either the first or the second syllable. An anal few like to argue for one or other pronunciation of that one — but most of us accept them both, and some even say both without particularly noticing.

So, no — not always.

  • "Catholic" vs. "Catholicism" is a misleading example because there is also significant automatic vowel change: /kæθəlɪk/ vs. /kəθɔlɪk/. So of course it will sound quite wrong (unless you are, in fact, stressing that syllable to help someone to spell the word — in that case you would stress it and change the vowel!). But what about cases where the stress changes, but the vowels don't? Clearly, as we see with "South Park", even native speakers disagree about both how they say it and whether they think it sounds right. So aren't we back to where we started? Maybe, maybe not? – Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 13:59
  • @Kosmonaut: Did I miss something? It's not exactly my generation, but I thought the whole point about this South Park word-pair was that the 'correct' enunciation for the tv cartoon of that name definitely stresses the first word. If we're talking about that, rather than some municipal park on the South side of town, how can we possibly disagree with the people who actually make the show? Or are the old farts going to bulldoze through that one like the Anglophones of yore pronouncing the capital of France? (or the country itself, come to that !-) – FumbleFingers May 2 '11 at 22:09
  • That is how it often works, but not every name like this gets a pronunciation like a set phrase, and not every person gives the same status to each phrase. So, for example, my sister stresses the first word in "Trader Joe's" (supermarket), but I stress the second word. The OP stresses the first word in "South Park" but whoever they were talking to stresses the second. So it's not cut-and-dried. As for appealing to the creator/owner, certainly this isn't how things work, otherwise you Brits should pronounce names of American TV shows and movies with an American accent, no? – Kosmonaut May 3 '11 at 2:08
  • @Kosmonaut - Creating and communicating are fundamental to art. Artists certainly have the right to name a work with their own choice of letters, pronunciation, style, etc. The name doesn't even have to follow grammar rules, it is inherently correct because they've chosen it. They also may or may not consider accent to be part of correct pronunciation. – whitneyland Nov 28 '16 at 14:44
  • @LeeWhitney: The originator of a word has the right to form the word however they want and to advocate for a particular pronunciation. If e.g. Lego wants to insist that people say "Lego bricks" instead of "Legos", they are welcome to do so. But they have no real authority over deciding whether someone is right or wrong in their own pronunciation, unless the community has agreed to grant them that authority. Indeed, there is no "inherent" correctness in language at all. Besides, if saying "Legos" is a part of my own self-expression, why wouldn't that be inherently correct as well? – Kosmonaut Nov 28 '16 at 16:04

If the question is "does stress crucially affect meaning in English?" then the answer is yes.

In a sentence, putting stress on various words affects the meaning:

  • I don't love YOU. (rather, I love someone else)
  • I don't LOVE you. (rather, I simply like you)

In each English word, the stress is lexicalized. Some words have syllable-final stress:

around, sustain, degree, parade, withhold

Some words have penultimate stress:

better, fashion, payment, differ

Some have antepenultimate stress:


And so on:


Many words are crucially distinguished by the stress, such as these noun and verb forms of words:

  • You record a song and play it on a record.
  • You insert an insert into a book.
  • When numbers increase, you see an increase.

Also, more closely related to your example, we normally have different stress patterns in how we pronounce set phrases vs. ad-hoc adjective-noun combinations.

For example, if I say "blackboard", I place primary stress on the first syllable ("black"). This will evoke the image of a slate on the wall that you write on with chalk. But if I am actually talking about a board (say, made of wood) that has been painted black, I would call it a "black board", placing primary stress on "board". Likewise, the word "South Park", as a set phrase, is generally stressed on the first syllable.

Not all common phrases take on this stress pattern, and not every one of these types of phrases have taken on the same status for everyone.

You will find that most speakers will conform to these rules almost all the time, although a word or phrase here and there might be treated differently by a given speaker or dialect region. For example, around here I hear people say the noun permit with stress on the secondary syllable — I only use that stress for the verb form.

So, these are the facts. Whether or not any deviation is considered a mispronunciation is, as you say, subjective.

  • @Kosmonaut: I'm baffled. OP asks whether 'wrong' emphasis is "considered a form of mispronouncing". You address the totally different issue of whether the placing of emphasis can affect meaning. Which is all very interesting, but how come yours gets to be the most upvoted answer, when it clearly isn't an answer to the question asked? – FumbleFingers May 2 '11 at 1:25
  • I guess a different emphasis leading to a different meaning could be construed as mispronouncing a word. – Nick Van Hoogenstyn May 2 '11 at 1:32
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    @FumbleFingers: Because it answers the one objectively answerable part of the question? In other languages, where stress is not crucial to meaning, assigning stress as we would in English might go unnoticed. In English, it is crucial, and therefore, using stress in violation of the rules I laid out can be viewed as a mispronunciation. "South Park" with stress on the second syllable, would not be seen as odd if you are talking about a park that is to the south. It would be seen as odd if you are talking about the set phrase that is the name of a fictional town. – Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 1:43
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    In fact, any part of any sentence, or even any syllable of any word, has the potential to be stressed, if the context warrants it. Knowing how it affects the meaning of what you are saying is how you can then make the call as to whether it is a mispronunciation. – Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 1:55
  • @Kosmonaut: Your points are all valid, obviously. But it doesn't alter the fact that OP only mentioned South Park by way of an example. His Question is undeniably whether 'wrong' emphasis is "considered a form of mispronouncing". I don't take issue with your contribution as such - it's interesting and informative. I just don't understand why it gets most upvoted as an Answer, when it isn't. – FumbleFingers May 2 '11 at 2:00

Well, as the saying goes, you put the acCENT on the wrong sylLABle. That is a form of mispronunciation, but if everyone is "mispronouncing" something, then it's not really a mispronunciation. And if half of the people pronounce it one way and the other half pronounce it another way, then it's just a variant.

But, yeah, if your friend pronounces the show "South PARK" then he should be flogged. Or at least ridiculed. Or maybe just ... tolerated. Some people honestly don't hear the difference in pronunciations. The heavy Brooklyn accent, which swaps bird for "boid" but pronounces toilet as "terlet", gave rise to this misunderstanding I read about some years ago.

A teacher from the Midwest got a job teaching at an elementary school in Brooklyn. She took the children on a field trip to the zoo, where they viewed, among other animals, a bald eagle.

"Do you know what that is?" the teacher asked her students.

One little boy spoke up. "Sure, Mrs. Eisner. It's a boid."

"Not quite," the teacher said, determined to teach good pronuncation. "Tommy, that's a bird."

"Oh," the child replied. "I tought it was a boid."

That's not really about emphasis, but it illustrates the point that different people pronounce words differently. Also different groups. The British say BERnard while Americans say BerNARD. Neither is wrong, it's merely a difference among groups. Except for the Indian guy I work with who says "Oh no, I do NOT like vegeTABLES." He's just wrong. I don't care if a billion people pronounce it like that, it's still wrong. (And in case you haven't sussed it out yet, I'm kidding.)

Where you put the accent in two-word phrases can really make a difference. There's an old children's joke:

If the red house is on the corner, and the blue house is next to it, where is the white house?

The answer, of course, is:

The White House is in Washington, D.C.

If you listen to this joke carefully, you will realize one reason you're fooled by it is that people pronounce white house differently from White House. The way I pronounce white house, there is roughly an equal accent on both words, but White House clearly has the accent on White. The same holds true for South Park. Your friend is pronouncing it like south Park, like the southern part of Park Street, rather than South Park, where South Park is a place name.

There's also a popular science math video -- Not Knot, around 5:45 minutes in -- where the narrator mispronounces whole number the same way; he pronounces it as if whole were an adjective modifying number, rather than whole number being a mathematical term. It's quite noticeable if you're a mathematician listening to it.

  • That's the same point as my answer: the common name for the US presidential residence is treated as one word, so the emphasis naturally falls to the first syllable. – staticsan May 6 '11 at 0:24

I suspect it's an artefact of treating the title as a single word. In English, most words of two syllables have the emphasis on the first syllable.

  • Staticsan is on to something. I'm voting up. – NateMPLS May 5 '11 at 17:34
  • Note that this doesn't always work. There is a suburb of Sydney called "East Hills", but everyone treats it as one word: "Ee-stills". The emphasis is still on the second syllable, but separating the words again would sound wrong to those who know the place. – staticsan May 6 '11 at 0:26
  • Yeah, nothing always works. I see grammatical rules much like scientific theory, which is evaluated according to its explanatory power and how much it is able to describe the world around it. – NateMPLS May 6 '11 at 0:36

Stress and intonation are a very important part of conveying meaning and can be used incorrectly.

The pronunciation of South in South Park follows the rules of compounding common to Germanic Languages. See Wikipedia.

Look at an example in Modern High German

'Der Schwarzwald' [SCHWARZ'-wald] means 'the Black Forest' and is a proper noun.


'Der schwarze Wald' [emphasis on WALD] means 'the black forest' and is common noun).

In English, it is similar to doghouse (pronounced DOG'-house), or

Red Hat [RED'-hat] is a company specializing in LINUX and open source software.


The woman wearing the red hat [red HAT'] is tall.

Another example:

The White House [WHITE' house] is where the President of the United States lives.


Mr. Jones lives in the white house [white HOUSE'] at the end of the street.

Another example:

The student wrote the answer on the black board [BLACK' board].


The black board [black BOARD'] had been charred in the house fire. (incidentally, house fire follows the rules of compounding as well.)

Following this rule

SOUTH'-Park implies a place name that cannot be separated and retain meaning.

the south(?) PARK', would be grammatically questionable, and probably should be better rendered the southern park. ie, The city has two parks. The northern park is next to the lake, and the southern park is by the school.

For more explanation of this concept, I believe you can refer to Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.

To address the question, Is misplaced emphasis a form of mispronunciation? more generally, yes. Speakers of languages where syllables are more evenly pronounced across words, or some tonal languages take extra effort from native speakers to understand when they transfer those rules to English. English stress and intonation follows Germanic rules, in that conjunctions and articles receive less of a stress unless the speaker needs to emphasize them to convey meaning.



The CAT' BIT' the DOG'.

There are other rules as well that can be found in Google searches--I am not aware of them all. My idea is that it may have something to do with the heads of noun and verb phrases carrying more stress than other components of a phrase.

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