Contrast (pronunciation)

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Contrast can be either a verb of a noun. The two are related, but have different pronunciations - particularly in their stress patterns.

  • The noun 'a contrast' is stressed on the first syllable: 'KON-trast', IPA: /'kɒn trɑːst/.
  • The verb 'to contrast is stressed on the second syllable: 'kern-TRAST', IPA: /kən 'trɑːst/.
Historically the basic meaning of contrast (noun and verb) was 'to place one colour beside, or against, another to bring out the qualities of both', or 'to bring out the quality of one colour by placing it next to one that was [very] different'. It was a technical term in painting and other crafts involving colours. The commonest meaning in academic circles nowadays is probably 'to compare two [similar] things [or people] to bring out the differences between them.' Students may often find exam questions with the instruction "Compare and contrast..." - the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, for example; the poems of Keats and Shelley; or the agriculture of southern Africa and that of South America.
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.