Compress (pronunciation)

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The word compress can be;long to either of two word classes. These have different pronunciations, particularly in terms of stress.

  • The verb 'to compress', means 'to squeeze into a smaller space', literally or metaphorically. Tires are filled with compressed air; the story of a book may be compressed into an encyclopaedia article, and a computer file may be compressed to take up less storage space'. This verb is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable: 'cerm-PRESS', IPA: /kə (or, more carefully ɒ)m ˈprɛs/.
  • The noun '[a] compress' is less usual now than once it was: a 'cold compress' used to be a standard treatment for sprains, and hot compresses for various ailments, including boils and stomach complaints. A compress is a bandage soaked in fluid (of the appropriate temperature). The noun has the stress on the first syllable: 'COM-press' IPA: /ˈkɒm prɛs/.
This pattern of shifting stress in words that look identical but belong to two separate word classes is quite common in English. Quirk (1985) (Appendix I.56 B) remarks: "When verbs of two syllables are converted into nouns, the stress is sometimes shifted from the second to the first syllable. The first syllable, typically a Latin prefix, often has a reduced vowel /ə/ in the verb but a full vowel in the noun:
He was con-VICT-ed (IPA: /kən ˈvɪkt ɪd/) of theft, and so became a CON vict (IPA: /ˈkɒn vɪkt/)" (AWE's rendition of IPA).
There follows a list of some 57 "words having end-stress as verbs but initial stress as nouns in Br[itish] E[nglish]." Note that "in Am[erican] E[nglish], many have initial stress as verbs also". Quirk's list is the foundation of AWE's category:shift of stress. Additions have been made from, amongst others, Fowler, 1926-1996.