"Compound Nouns" in English Grammar

Compound Nouns

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

"Compound Nouns" in English Grammar

What Are Compound Nouns?

One of the very common ways of making up new words is by combining words together. Words that are made up of more than one word are called compound nouns. They act as a single unit. These nouns normally have a different meaning than the two separate words.

Compound Nouns

Every compound noun has at least two elements:

  1. head
  2. dependent(s)

What is a Head?

The head (also called the principal or the nucleus) has the core meaning in a compound word. It is the most important part of a compound noun that defines the part of speech of the whole compound noun. For example, the head of the compound noun basketball is ball, since a basketball is a ball, not a 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 must have one head and two or more dependents. These elements 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

To make a 'compound noun' you can use a noun added to another noun.

My grandmother is a housewife.

His classmates are getting to know him better.

Adj + Noun

To make a 'compound noun' you can also use an adjective added to the 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

To make a 'compound noun,' a verb can also be added to the 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

To make a 'compound noun' a preposition can be added to the noun as well.

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

To make a 'compound noun' you can use a gerund followed by a noun. A gerund is a combination of verb + -ing.

She needs a washing machine.

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

I have got my driving license two years ago.

Preposition + Noun

To make a 'compound noun' we can also add 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 the water because of the earthquake.

Adj + Verb + ing

To make 'compound nouns' we can also add a verb to an adjective. In this case, the verb can also be a gerund.

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

To make 'compound nouns' a preposition can be added to the 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

To make a 'compound noun' we can also add a verb to the 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

We have 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 important in pronunciation, because it helps distinguishing between a compound noun and an adjective with a noun. Look at the example:

a white house

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

the Whitehouse

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 Americans or the British may use the open, hyphenated or closed types for the same compound noun. It is partly a matter of style. There are no definite rules.

  • six pack
  • sixpack
  • six-pack

All three dictations are correct. If you want to know the dictation of a particular compound noun, you'd better check a dictionary.

Countable or Uncountable Compound Nouns

Based on whether a compound noun can be counted or not, compound nouns are categorized into two groups: countable and uncountable compound nouns.

Countable Compound Nouns

Countable nouns are easy to count or put a number before them. Check out these countable compound nouns to find out how they turn plural. Usually, by adding s to the last part of the compound noun (which is usually the head) you can make them plural words.

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 nouns do not have a plural form because we cannot count them. Check out the examples:

further education, fast food → no plural

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

Plural Compound Nouns

When we want to make a compound noun plural, there are rules to follow:
If you have a single word, you simply add an 's.' But if you have separate words (whether hyphenated or not) you should make the most important word (the head) plural. 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?

Compound nouns look like noun phrase because they are made of two or more words. But they are different. A compound noun is considered to function as a single word rather than a structure formed by a modifier and a noun so you cannot separate compound nouns and use modifiers between the parts of them. As a result, compound nouns cannot be modified directly by an adverb, however, they can be modified by other adjectives. Noun phrases are usually made of a modifier and a noun so, they can be directly modified by another 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 vs. 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.

What Is the Difference between Using Compound Nouns and Of?

In some cases you are only allowed to use compound nouns instead of using the particle 'of.' In other cases, using either one is correct.

Describing Functions

Sometimes when you want to describe what something is used for, you use 'compound nouns.' You cannot use the particle 'of' to indicate a noun and its function at the same time. 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

You can use compound nouns to describe what something is made of, and you can also use the particle 'of' to express the material of an object. Here are a few examples:

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

✓ This coat of wool is really expensive.

Describing the Container

You can use either the compound noun or the structure with the particle 'of' to indicate the container of a substance, but it is important to know that using compound nouns puts focus on the container itself, but using 'of,' emphasizes on the substance which is in the container. Check out the examples:

✓ The swimming pool was being cleaned.

In this example, the emphasis is on the pool which is the container for the water in the pool.

✓ 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. In this case, they are spaced, or solid compound nouns. Remember, we cannot use 'of' to refer to a job title.

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 head and dependent can have different kinds of word classes. For example adjective, Preposition, noun, etc.


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