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) describes the most common: "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.