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Compound noun, adjective and verb

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Compound verb

Compound nouns and compound adjectives are grouped together, as they are constructed similarly and often originate from similar sources.

Compound nouns as a rule started out as adjectives or modifiers combined with nouns, such as blackboard originating from "black board" and skyscraper (being formed by sky modifying scraper×there are many types of scrapers, this one metaphorically scraping the sky); highlight (high being an adjective/modifier to light, meaning "colour"); temperance society (temperance modifying society).
Although the left-hand (modifying) component often is an original noun, as a modifier, it takes the function of an adjective for the main right-hand component. A noun used in this adjectival way is called an attributive noun.

So it is with compound adjectives, as they are constructed in a very similar way to the compound noun. Blackboard jungle, leftover ingredients, gunmetal sheen, and green monkey disease are only a few examples.

Table of contents
1 Compound noun
2 Compound adjective
3 See also

Compound noun

A compound noun usually consists of two or more free elements, which are morphemes that can stand on their own and that have their own meaning but together form another word with a modified meaning.

In English, grammarians call the right-hand component the head. The head is the categorical part that contains the basic meaning of the whole compound and the left-hand element modifies this.

The four types of compound nouns

Rules of thumb

The way compound nouns are combined cannot always be strictly determined, and often a good dictionary may have to be consulted, but certain rules of thumb may be of use:

Usage in the U.S. and in the UK differs and often depends on the individual choice of the writer rather than on a hard-and-fast rule; therefore, open, hyphenated, and closed forms may be encountered for the same compound noun, such as the triplets container ship/container-ship/containership and particle board/particle-board/odd-looking particleboard.

Left-hand modifiers of right-hand components

The left-hand component in a compound noun is the modifier, because it modifies or limits the meaning of the right-hand component. For example, in the solid compound footstool, foot limits the meaning of stool to that of a "stool for one's foot or feet". (It can be used for sitting on, but that is not its primary purpose.) A foundation stone is a stone, one of a type and not of any other, with which a foundation for a building is being laid.

A modifier in a compound fulfills a very similar function to that in an adjective + noun. A black board is any board that is black, and equal prosodic stress can be found on both elements (or, according to psycholinguist Steven Pinker, the second one is accented more heavily. A blackboard, the compound, may have started out as any other black board, but now is a thing that is constructed in a particular way, of a particular material and serves a particular purpose; the word is clearly accented on the first syllable. See Sound Patterns below for more on the stress in phrases vs. compounds.

A modifier thus may indicate the purpose the noun stands for, the material of which it is made, or the way it works, is designed, or is constructed, as in sandcastle, roundhouse, workbench, or particle board.

Sound patterns

Another aspect, that of the sound pattern of compounds that originally started with an adjective modifier, ought to be considered. Sound patterns, such as stresses placed on particular syllables, may indicate whether the word group is a compound or whether it is an adjective-+-noun phrase. A compound usually has a falling intonation: "bláckboard," the "Whíte House", as opposed to the phrases "bláck bóárd". (Note that this rule does not apply in all contexts. For example, the stress pattern "whíte house" would be expected for the compound, which happens to be a proper name, but it is also found in the emphatic negation "No, not the black house; the white house!"


Analyzability, too, is a means of arriving at the meaning of a compound word. Some, such as lightweight, are easily analyzable; some others are less so, such as steamboat: steam plays a certain role in the propulsion of the boat, but it is not clear how it does so. Finally, there are those compounds that have as their components totally illogical and unanalyzable morphemes, such as butterfly, ladybird, cranberry, etc. The name butterfly, commonly thought to be a metathesis for flutter by, which the bugs do, is actually based on an old bubbe-maise that butterflies are petite witches that steal butter from windowsills. Cranberry is a part translation from German, which is why we cannot recognize the element cran (from the German kraan or kroon, "crane"). Finally, the ladybird or ladybug was named after the Christian expression "our Lady, the Virgin Mary".


A further aspect of compound nouns is that of the meaning being arrived at by paraphrasing the two morphemes by means of prepositions:

Other languages

Most natural languages have compound nouns and adjectives.

Spanish: The third-person present indicative form of a verb combined with a plural direct object can form a compound. Other times, two nouns can be combined or an adjective can be combined with a noun:

Italian French: German: The longest compounds in the world may be found in Finnish and Germanic languages, such as Swedish. German examples include Kontaktlinsenverträglichkeitstest ("contact-lensÖcompatibility test") and the jocular Rheindampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsstellvertreter ("Rhine steamship-company vice-captain").

Compound adjective

A compound adjective is a modifier of a noun. It consists of two or more morphemes of which the left-hand component limits or changes the modification of the right-hand one, as in "the dark-green dress": dark limits the green that modifies dress.

Solid compound adjectives

Hyphenated compound adjectives

A compound adjective is hyphenated if the hyphen helps the reader differentiate a compound adjective from two adjacent adjectives that each independently modify the noun. Compare the following examples:

The hyphen is unneeded when capitalization or italicization makes grouping clear:

If, however, there is no risk of ambiguities, it may be written without a hyphen: "Sunday morning walk".

Hyphenated compound adjectives may have been formed originally by an adjective preceding a noun:

Others may have originated with a verb preceding an adjective or adverb: Yet others are created with an original verb preceding a preposition.

The following compound adjectives are always hyphenated when they are not written as one word:

An adjective preceding a noun to which -d or -ed has been added as a past-participle construction:

A noun, adjective, or adverb preceding a present participle:
Numbers spelled out or as numerics:
A numeric with the affix -fold has a hyphen (15-fold), but when spelled out takes a solid construction (fifteenfold).

Numbers, spelled out or numeric, with added -odd: \sixteen-odd", 70-odd''.

Compound adjectives with high- or low-: "high-level discussion", "low-price markup".

Colours in compounds:

Fractions as modifiers are hyphenated: "five-eighths inches", but if numerator or denominator are already hyphenated, the fraction itself does not take a hyphen: "a thirty-three thousandth part". Fractions used as nouns have no hyphens: "I ate only one third of the pie."

Comparatives and superlatives in compound adjectives also take hyphens:

However, a construction with most is not hyphenated:
"the most respected member".

Compounds including two geographical modifiers:

But not

The following compound adjectives are not normally hyphenated:

Where there is no risk of ambiguity:

Left-hand components of a compound adjective that end in -ly that modify right-hand components that are past participles (ending in -ed):
Compound adjectives that include comparatives and superlatives with more, most, less or least:
Ordinarily hyphenated compounds with intensive adverbs in front of adjectives:

See also