At least in American English, the word offense has two different pronunciations used for two different meanings:

  • I took offense at his joke
  • The team's offense is quite good

How did this pronunciation difference come about? Are the etymologies of the words different? I read about https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initial-stress-derived_noun and it seems not to quite fit this case. Some other words I thought of that seems to exhibit this phenomenon are defense and desert (this one seems different as its a noun vs a verb). I would be interested in any ideas.

  • 1
    I cannot offer a definitive answer to this. But I think a starting point would be that in general dissyllables are accentuated on the first syllable, as in market, window, daylight.... But where a dissyllable is a monosyllable with a prepositional prefix, the second syllable (with many exceptions) is stressed: as in resent, demand, prolong, excuse, address. But not always. US, unlike British, stress the first syllable of address. In US, football commentators say OFFence. Why?. Probably because it’s a dissyllable and it just happened. Sorry to be mundane.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 8 '20 at 23:16
  • 2
    The difference in stress for the noun and the verb english.stackexchange.com/q/315817/36710 is related.
    – livresque
    Jul 9 '20 at 0:23

I think the reason for moving the stress to the first syllable in your second example is that in football, offense is very often contrasted with defense. "How does their offense compare with their defense?" That sentence would sound very odd if offense and defense were pronounced in the usual way, with the stress on the second syllable. Try it and see!

  • 1
    I agree that offense and defense having different pronunciations in your sentence would feel quite odd. However, something like "How do their offensive stats compare with their defensive stats" sounds perfectly fine with or without the accent on the first syllable to my ears, which seems to indicate its not just the comparison between offense/defense.
    – Ringil
    Jul 8 '20 at 23:40
  • 1
    @Ringil "Stats that offend"? Pronouncing offensive stats that way sounds completely wrong to me—unless it's a deliberate pun. Jul 9 '20 at 0:11
  • @JasonBassford I asked some people around me and although we would prefer the stress on the first syllable, the stress on the second syllable seems acceptable. Here are some cases I found on youtube of people stressing it on the second syllable: youtu.be/Wo87RVuqOUo?t=515 youtu.be/qXEj1uM_wXk?t=15
    – Ringil
    Jul 9 '20 at 13:02
  • 1
    @Ringil This might just be a matter of opinion. Had the different pronunciation not evolved into normal use with the other sense of the word, that association could easily have been normal. The particular pronunciation was arbitrary at the start—or if it wasn't, the reasons for it are probably unknown. However, personally, I certainly find it unacceptable to use the other pronunciation now. Jul 9 '20 at 13:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.