Compound nouns are formed when two or more words are joined together to create a new word that has an entirely new meaning.

What are "Compound Nouns" in English Grammar?

What Are Compound Nouns?

One common way of creating new words is by combining existing words together. When two or more words are combined to form a single noun, it is called a *compound noun. These nouns act as a unified concept and often have a different meaning than the individual words that make them up

Compound Nouns: Structure

Every compound noun has at least two elements:

  • head
  • dependent(s)

What is a Head?

The head, also known as the principal or nucleus, is the most important element of a compound word. It carries the core meaning of the word and determines the part of speech of the entire compound noun. For instance, in the compound noun "basketball," the head is "ball" because a basketball is a type of ball, not a type of basket.

foot (noun) + ball (noun) = football (noun)

In this example; 'ball' is the head and it is a noun, so 'football is a noun.

What Is a Dependent?

All compound nouns consist of at least one head and one or more dependents, which can be verbs, nouns, preposition, adjective etc. Look at these examples:

Here is your toothpaste, it costs one dollar, please.

Here, the term 'paste' is the head and the term 'tooth' is the dependent.

Write it down in your notebook!

In this example, the term 'note' is the dependent and the term 'book' is the head of the compound noun.

Compound Noun Structure: Based on Head and Dependent(s)

Here are the structures that are used to make compound nouns.

Noun + Noun

One way to create a compound noun is by combining two nouns together.

My grandmother is a housewife.

His classmates are getting to know him better.

Adj + Noun

Compound nouns can also be formed by combining an adjective with a noun.

Ronnie is a redhead.

Here, the term 'red' is the adjective for the noun 'head.'

My high school teacher is a cruel man.

Noun + Verb

A compound noun can also be created by adding a verb to a noun.

She has got a new haircut.

In this example, 'hair' is a noun and 'cut' is a verb.

Below-normal rainfall has led to a major water shortage.

Noun + Preposition

A compound noun can also be formed by adding a preposition to a noun.

She is this year's runner-up.

In this example, 'up' is a preposition and 'runner' is a noun.

I saw another passerby licking ice cream.

Gerund + Noun

A compound noun can also be created by combining a gerund (a verb form ending in -ing) with a noun.

She needs a washing machine.

Here, 'washing' is a verb made of 'wash + -ing' and 'machine' is a noun.

I need to renew my driving license before it expires.

Preposition + Noun

A compound noun can also be formed by adding a noun to a preposition.

Innocent bystanders were killed by the blast.

Here, 'by' is a preposition and 'standers' is a noun.

The underground was filled with water because of the earthquake.

Adj + Verb + ing

Compound nouns can also be created by adding a verb, including a gerund, to an adjective.

The dry-cleaning was closed for three hours.

In this example, 'dry' is an adjective and 'cleaning' is a verb that is made of 'clean + -ing.'

Verb + Preposition

A compound noun can also be created by adding a preposition to a verb.

Your only drawback is being self-centered.

In this example, 'draw' is a verb and 'back' is a preposition.

Take-offs are not allowed in stormy weather.

Preposition + Verb

A compound noun can also be formed by adding a verb to a preposition.

Her daily intake of calories is way too high.

Here, 'in' is a preposition followed by 'take' which is a verb.

You don't need much input for the project.

Compound Nouns Structure: Based on Spacing

There are three types of compound nouns based on spacing:

  • Open or Spaced compound nouns: there is a space between the words;

science fiction, water tank

  • Closed or Solid compound nouns: there is no space between the words;

football, wallpaper

  • Hyphenated compound nouns: there is a hyphen between the words.

check-out, dry-cleaning

Compound Nouns: Stress Patterns

Right: a compound noun; Left: a noun phrase

All monosyllabic nouns and adjectives are stressed. But in a compound noun, the first word is usually more stressed.
Stress is an important aspect of pronunciation because it helps to distinguish between a compound noun and a phrase consisting of an adjective and a noun.

a white house

In this example, both 'white' and 'house' are equally stressed. It means a house which is painted white.

the White House

Here, 'white' is more stressed than 'house' and it means the 'Whitehouse,' the official residence and workplace of the president of the United States.

American or British?

The spelling of compound nouns can differ between American and British English. The choice of spelling is often a matter of stylistic preference rather than strict rules. For instance:

  • six pack
  • sixpack
  • six-pack

All three spellings of this word are considered correct.
If you are unsure of the spelling of a particular compound noun, it is best to consult a dictionary.

Countable or Uncountable Compound Nouns

Compound nouns can be categorized into two groups based on whether they can be counted or not: countable compound nouns and uncountable compound nouns.

Countable Compound Nouns

Countable nouns are those that can be easily counted or quantified. When it comes to countable compound nouns, you can make them plural in a similar way to regular countable nouns by adding an -s or -es to the end of the final word, which is typically the head of the noun.

bus stop, car park → bus stops, car parks

In this example, we can count the stops or the parks.

taxi driver → taxi drivers

Uncountable Compound Nouns

Uncountable compound nouns do not have a plural form because they cannot be counted.

higher education, fast food → no plural

Here, education and food are both uncountable nouns, so we use fast food or higher education as a singular compound noun.

Plural Compound Nouns

When making a compound noun plural, there are some general rules to follow. If the compound noun is a single word (closed compound noun), you can simply add an -s to the end of the word. However, if the compound noun consists of separate words, whether hyphenated or spaced, you should make the most important word plural, that is, the head of the noun. Take a look at some examples:

newspaper → newspapers

swimming pool → swimming pools

In this example, the head of the compound noun is pool and swimming is a modifier describing it. So we add 's' to the head of the compound noun.

sister-in-law → sisters-in-law

Here, the most significant word is 'sister,' therefore we add 's' to that word.

woman-doctor → women-doctors

Here, both words are actually significant, so we pluralize both of them.

Compound Noun or Noun Phrase?

Although compound nouns are made up of two or more words and may resemble a noun phrase, the two are actually different. A compound noun is considered to function as a single word rather than a combination of a modifier and a noun. Therefore, you cannot separate a compound noun and insert modifiers between its parts. As a result, adverbs cannot directly modify compound nouns. However, compound nouns can be modified by adjectives.
In contrast, noun phrases are typically composed of a modifier and a noun, which can be directly modified by an adverb.

the blueberries vs. the blue car

In this example, we can easily separate blue and car with the same meaning and put modifiers between them: 'The blue Italian car.' But we cannot say the 'blue Italian berries.'

a haircut vs. a nice haircut

We cannot say 'a really haircut,' but we can say 'a really nice haircut.'

deep breath and heavy rain → noun phrases

really deep breath ✓ nightly heavy rain ✓

Possessive Compound Nouns

To make possessive compound nouns, the apostrophe s is simply added to the end of the compound nouns. If the compound noun is plural, try to rewrite the sentence to avoid the awkwardness.

The underworld's criminal activities in New York City is rising rapidly.

My teacup's handle is broken.

The screens of the computers were all cracked.

Instead of "The computers' screens were all cracked"

What Is the Difference between Using Compound Nouns and 'Of'?

Sometimes, you may only be allowed to use compound nouns instead of the preposition 'of', while in other cases, both options are acceptable.

Describing Functions

Compound nouns are often used to describe the purpose or function of an object. When using a compound noun to indicate an object's purpose, you cannot use the preposition "of" to connect the noun and its function. Instead, the two elements are combined into a single word to form a compound noun that conveys the object's purpose or function. Check out the examples:

He has the most fabulous tennis shoes. → (Not 'He has the most fabulous shoes of tennis.')

Sara washed the teacups. → (Not 'Sara washed the cups of the tea.')

Describing Materials

Compound nouns can be used to describe the material that something is made of, in these cases it's possible to use the preposition "of" to express an object's composition or material. Here are a few examples:

✓ This is a wool coat, it is really expensive.

✓ This coat of wool is really expensive.

Describing the Container

Both compound nouns and the preposition "of" can be used to indicate the container of a substance. However, it's important to note that using a compound noun places emphasis on the container itself, while using "of" emphasizes the substance inside the container. Check out the examples:

✓ The milk jug was full of creamy, white milk.

In this example, the emphasis is on the mug which is the container for the milk..

✓ The pool of dirt made the dragon move more slowly.

Here, the emphasis is on the dirt that is in the pool.

Describing Job Titles

Compound nouns can be used to describe job titles, and in this case, they may be written as spaced or solid compound nouns. It's important to note that the preposition "of" should not be used to refer to a job title. Instead, the job title should be expressed as a compound noun to convey the intended meaning.

My father is a fireman. (Not 'My father is a man of fire.')

In this example, the term 'fireman' is a solid compound noun.

My girlfriend's brother is a flight attendant. (Not 'My girlfriend's brother is an attendant of flight.)

Here, 'flight attendant' is a spaced compound noun.


'Compound nouns' consist of:

  • Only one Head
  • One or more Dependents

Compound Nouns Structures Based on Spaces

without space with only one space with hyphen
keyboard half sister tractor-trailer
footprint tennis shoe comedy-ballet
basketball roller coaster color-filter

Both the head and the dependent in a compound noun can belong to different word classes, such as adjectives, prepositions, nouns, and so on.


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