I've thought about how we say "bad guy", when we refer to a character in a game or a story, with a different cadence than we say "bad guy", when we mean "a guy who is bad".

"Bad guy" in the former sense is almost its own word, with its own meaning and pronunciation.

Possible other examples:

Hot dog
Black belt
Lazy eye
Green card

Is there a term for this phenomenon? If I could describe it, it's when two words become a unit as opposed to discrete words.

  • Better examples might be "a red light", "a green house" etc. "a hot dog" is good. Mar 16, 2021 at 18:15
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    @Cascabel I added better examples
    – Lua
    Mar 16, 2021 at 18:45
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    There are separate issues involved here. One is compounding, where the compound may take on a narrower or even different definition from the simplex words (a black bird is a (any) bird that is black, whereas a blackbird is (normally) a specimen of Turdus merula (so a blackbird may be brown). On the other hand, a blackboard is a board that is black (but was once usually used for writing on). // The other issue is intersectiveness, and non-semantically-predicative adjectives, which occur other than with compounding. For example, a heavy smoker is not a smoker who is heavy. Mar 16, 2021 at 18:57
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    "Stress patterns and compounding dealt with elsewhere." I think that is the point of the Q... Mar 16, 2021 at 19:23
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    Yes, it's all about stress and rhythm. As Henry Lee Smith used to say, Not every white house is the White House. Mar 16, 2021 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


"... with a different cadence [...] with its own meaning and pronunciation." -OP

I am interpreting that to mean stress, or intonation.

In speech, Compounds are indicated by putting the stress on the first word. A simple adjective + noun collocation has the stress on the second word.

For example,

"go left at the 'white house'"

...may have 2 or more interpretations when you are riding down Pennsylvania avenue in Washington and talking to your driver.

For lack of a better term (at the moment), I would call it "contrastive patterns". Possibly it is a type of "minimal pairs".

This is a form of "coding", which in this case means the compound noun is expected to be understood by the position of the stress. This type of production can be a source of confusion for many non-native speakers as it depends upon the de-coding of the pronunciation. Sometimes there is an L1-L2 confusion.

...such contrastive patterns as ˈHOT ˌdog(type of food) [compound] vs. ˌhot ˈDOG(hot canine)[phrase]”and “a ˈGREEN ˌhouse(a building made of glass for growing plants inside) [compound] vs. a ˌgreen ˈHOUSE(a house which is painted green) [phrase]the difference in the stress placement is a clear indication of meaning changes expressed.Compounds have primary stress on the first word and on those following them they have secondary stress. In the compound ˈGOLF ˌball, the first word has primary stress and the following the secondary stress.As for phrases, however, their qualified elements i.e. the words second in line are stressed more prominently

Stress Placement on Compounds and Phrases in English (PhD. Metin YurtbaşıBayburt)

Spoken compounds are easily understood by native speakers, but often mis-understood by non-native speakers. This is considered a high-level topic for EFL/ESL students studying at call-centers.

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    This is in fact used in a children's riddle: "if the red house is on the corner, and the yellow house is next to it, where is the white house?" The answer is: "The White House is in Washington D.C." (with the two instances of "the white house" being stressed differently.) Mar 17, 2021 at 15:29

Compound Word

There are three types of compound words:

  • open (with a space between, as in your examples)
  • closed (as in "grandmother")
  • hyphenated (as in "high-speed")

You are referring to open compound words.

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