Daily Prompt: Protest

via Daily Prompt: Protest

What’s the difference between the following words in bold:

I’d like to protest about my treatment!

I’m going to a protest about the treatment of refugees tomorrow.

If you’re linguistically minded, or simply very smart, you may have answered that even though they look identical, the first one is a verb, and the second a noun. You can tell from the context of the sentences. But if you were listening to someone recite those sentences, there’d be another clue to help you know the difference. Think about how you’d say both, or say them both out loud, if it’s not too embarrassing, and see if you can figure out the clue.

If you’re still not sure of the difference, here’s a visual aid:

I’d like to protest about my treatment!

I’m going to a protest about the treatment of refugees tomorrow.

There’s a good chance that in the first sentence you emphasised the second syllable in the word, and in the second sentence you emphasised the first.

(NB: when we talk about emphasising or stressing a syllable in language teaching, we’re not talking about doing it in a heavy-handed, obvious way. It simply means that your voice goes up, perhaps only slightly, in relation to the other syllables in a word. Basically every multi-syllabic English word has one [and only one] stressed syllable.)

With a word that can be used as a verb or noun, this is how we often distinguish them: emphasising the first syllable makes it a noun, and emphasising the second syllable makes it a verb. I’ve just realised that protest is perhaps not the best word to demonstrate this, as some people emphasise the first syllable when using it as a verb, but have a look at the following words, and try shifting the emphasis from the first to the second syllable, to see how often this is true:

present, export/import, contract, object, address, access, transport

As always, there are exceptions, like offer, damage, report, request, and this pattern doesn’t apply to monosyllabic words like dream or hit, because word stress doesn’t apply to them (you need at least two syllables to emphasise one).

Still, it’s handy to know for correct pronunciation, and it’s an important thing for learners to become aware of once they get to a sufficient level to be using and encountering these words.

If you’re a native speaker and thinking to yourself that you should make note of this, don’t think too much about it. Apart from the one or two cases like transport and protest whose pronunciation might not exactly follow this rule for every person, you already know this. You didn’t know you know this, but you do. You acquire this knowledge passively as you grow up, and automatically reproduce the correct pronunciation. Like so much of language, it’s a convention we stick to quite rigidly without consciously knowing it, and which developed naturally over time. Language can seem quite chaotic at times, and its evolution haphazard, but just like biological evolution and the mechanism of natural selection, some simple, elegant forms can develop out of this seemingly random process. I can get dismayed sometimes at the way language changes, but I take heart in the knowledge that language’s natural selection will only allow whatever makes communication easier to succeed, and however the language evolves, it will always have these simple and functional patterns that are so intuitive we don’t even know that we know them.


6 thoughts on “Daily Prompt: Protest

  1. Good point about the difference in pronunciation. I’m sure there are quite a few examples like that.
    I received a letter from an Eastern European penpal once and she said, about her means of learning English, “We have to show English movies at our theater.”
    Took me a bit to figure out that she meant: “We have English movies to show…” In other words, “Our theaters have English movies we can watch.”
    I wrote her back and tried to explain the difference between “have to’ (which we pronounce hafta) and have them to (show, offer.) The slightly different pronunciation gives a big twist to the meaning if we say I have to (hafta) sell them or I have them to sell — or have two to sell.
    My French student said of our inflections, “It sounds like you’re singing.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting case: it didn’t seem obvious to me at first (I assumed she meant “We’re obliged to show…”), but once you explained it I realised how it easy it was for her to think that writing it like that could mean “We have English movies to show…”


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