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Today I came across an English adjective which has one stress pattern when used predicatively: her cat died: she's very up‵set, and the other when used attributively: he won't be coming: he has an ‵upset stomach.

I wasn't aware that this was a thing in English adjectives.

Spurred on by this upset, I came up with another case, that I'm not 100% sure of: can you give a ‵concrete example? but the example is con‵crete and not the example is ‵concrete.

From concrete it appears the difference in predicative use serves to distinguish the adjective from an otherwise identical noun.

Are there other examples? More might cast more light on this.

Of course, you might argue that the adjectives up‵set and ‵upset are distinct lexical items, in which case the puzzle goes away. But if you do, etymology is, I think, not on your side.

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    What you're finding with upset is what you'll also find with champagne and thirteen. They are all words with two potentially stessable syllables (or according to some theories, two stressed syllables). All other things being equal, they will recieve a more prominent stress on the second syllable. However! When the following word also begins with a stressed syllable they undergo stress shift, and the first syllable becomes more prominent than the second. "I love champagne", but "a champagne cocktail". And "When I was thirteen" versus "Thirteen elephants" etc. Jun 29, 2022 at 22:21
  • @Araucaria No, I disagree. Both of your examples are noun modifiers, not adjectives. You talk about stress shift, but you do not explain why there is no stress shift in the example I presented. She was very upset today and She was very upset yesterday both have the stress on the second syllable of upset, even though today has its primary stress on its second syllable and yesterday has its primary stress on its first.
    – BoarGules
    Jun 30, 2022 at 0:13
  • The reason is that temporal adjuncts generally occur after the nucleus. In your example, if the first syllable of yesterday was marked and unstereoptypically took the tonic syllable, then, upset wouldn't recieve a rythimic stress in the IP. Stress shift requires that one of the syllables within the word and also the first syllable of the following word both recieve rythmic stress within the IP. So in your example, if yesterday was stressed it would be "She was 'very upset 'yesterday." Jun 30, 2022 at 0:22
  • I don't understand your dashes etc. Jun 30, 2022 at 0:27
  • So you would attest a stress on the first syllable of upset in "She was very upset yesterday."? I wouldn't.
    – BoarGules
    Jun 30, 2022 at 0:28

2 Answers 2

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There are a number of words that seem to be accented on the last syllable when they are used predicatively, or as the last word in a phrase, but not when attached somewhere before a noun in a noun phrase.

I'm not sure exactly what the nature of this is, but I agree with Araucaria that it is a prosodic phenomenon, and that it involves words that have more than one stressed syllable to begin with. So I definitely would not say that "up‵set and ‵upset are distinct lexical items".

I don't think it can entirely be attributed to stress shift to avoid stress "clashes" when the following word starts with a stressed syllable, because something like this can happen when the following word doesn't start with a stressed syllable.

For example, I don't hear or feel like there should be an accent on the second syllable of "upset" in the following contexts:

My current guess about what's going on is that the word is just not being assigned an accent to begin with. And without an accent on the second syllable, the stress on the first syllable no longer sounds less prominent than the stress on the second syllable.

Other words that I think show the same phenomenon for me:

  • Japanese
  • unknown
  • thirteen and other number words, as Araucaria mentioned

Some words that are subject to this phenomenon seem to have alternative stress patterns in predicative position, depending on the speaker. For example, absolute can be accented on either the first or final syllable in a sentence like "A dictator's power was absolute". "Portuguese" as a noun or as a predicative adjective has final stress for some speakers, initial stress for others.

Another example that I find interesting is leftover/left over (which there was a previous question about). The final syllable is unstressed and so never accented; but I have stress on the first two syllables. The o of over is accented for me in a sentence like "There's only one left over!", but not in a phrase like "The leftover materials".

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I can answer only from a British point of view, because many word-stress patterns are different in the US.

For me the noun "upset" is stressed on the first syllable. 'up set

The verb "to upset" is stressed on the second syllable. up 'set

What you call the adjective is, the way I see it, part of the passive of the verb.

Examples (British English)

John suffered a big 'up-set last week when his dog was killed in a road accident. (noun)

Mary up'set her friend Janet by flirting with her boyfriend. (verb)

Janet was up'set by what Mary did. (passive of verb)


This pattern is very common where the noun and verb are spelled the same.

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  • Can we keep the discussion to the adjective? That is what the question was about. You may choose to call it a participial adjective if you wish.
    – BoarGules
    Jun 29, 2022 at 21:12
  • The stress distinguishes the noun from the adjective and verb, but those are both stressed on the second syllable. There's a strong tendency for nouns to be stressed initially, and it's socially variable, like POlice, UMbrella, CIGaret, INSurance in some dialects. Jun 29, 2022 at 21:39
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    Why are you writing up'set? for the verb. I agree with those stress patterns and I speak AmE....
    – Lambie
    Jun 29, 2022 at 22:23
  • @Lambie That's a stress mark. Jun 30, 2022 at 6:57

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