Compound Nouns in English Grammar

Compound Nouns in English Grammar

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

Compound Nouns

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

Compound Nouns: Structure

Every compound noun has at least two elements:

  1. head
  2. dependent

The head has the core meaning in a compound word. In English language, the rightmost word (i.e. the second noun in a two-part compound noun) is typically the head of the compound word. Whatever the part of speech of the head is, it would be the part of speech of the compound word.

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

Ball is the head and it is a noun, so 'football is a noun.

dark (adj) + blue (adj) = dark-blue (adj)

However, that is not the case all the time. For example, in the compound word ‘scarecrow’, the head is not ‘crow’, because a scarecrow is not a crow. Therefore, it is not the most important word.
Another example is ‘Walkman’ in which ‘man’ cannot be considered the head of the compound noun.
In a compound word which is consisted of a preposition, the non-prepositional part is the head of the compound noun.

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

All compound nouns must have one head and two or more dependents. These elements can be verbs, nouns, prepositions, adverbs etc. Look at these structures:

Noun + Noun

Compound nouns are usually made up of a noun plus other noun.

housewife , classmate

Both parts are nouns.

Adj + Noun

Compound nouns are usually made up of an adjective plus a noun.

high school , dining room , greenhouse

high (adjective) + school (noun)

Noun + Verb

Compound nouns can be made up of a noun plus a verb.

rainfall , haircut

Hair (noun) + cut (verb)

Noun + Preposition

Compound nouns can be made up of a noun plus a preposition.

passerby , runner up

Runner (noun) + up (preposition)

Verb + ing + Noun

Compound nouns can be made up of a gerund plus a noun.

driving license , washing machine

Washing (gerund) + machine (noun)

Preposition + Noun

Compound nouns can be made up of a preposition plus a noun.

bystander , underground

Under (preposition) + ground (noun)

Adj. + Verb + ing

Compound nouns can be made up of an adjective plus a verb.


Dry (adjective) + cleaning (gerund)

Verb + Preposition (Phrasal Verb)

Compound nouns can be made up of a verb plus a preposition.


Draw (verb) + back (preposition)

Preposition + Verb

Compound nouns can be made up of a preposition plus a verb.


In (preposition) + put (verb)

Compound Nouns Structure: Based on Spacing

We have three types of compound nouns:

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

science fiction , water tank

You can see the space between water and tank.

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

football , wallpaper

They are used as a solid term.

  • Hyphenated compound nouns: there is a hyphen between words;

check-out , dry-cleaning

As if the words are separated by a hyphen.

Compound Nouns: Stress Patterns

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

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'.

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 dictions are correct. If you want to know the diction of a particular compound noun, you'd better check a dictionary.

Countable or Uncountable Compound Nouns

Compound nouns can be countable or uncountable. Look at some examples of both categories:

  • Countable Compound Nouns

bus stop , car park

We can count the stops or the parks. we use bus stops as a plural countable compound noun.

  • Uncountable Compound Nouns

further education , fast food

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 plural. Let's see some examples:

newspaper → newspapers

swimming pool → swimming pools

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

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 Not?

A noun phrase is normally formed by a modifier and a noun. But that is similar to compound nouns. One of the differences lies in their grammatical composition. A compound noun is considered to function as a single word rather than a structure formed by a modifier and a noun.
Another difference is about stress pattern. The stress pattern of a compound noun is different from your typical noun phrase:

leaky cauldron vs . cauldron leak

While the adj+noun pair 'leaky cauldron', definitely has two clear, standout syllables – at the beginning of each word, ‘CAULDron leak’ really only has one, at the very beginning.

blackboard vs . black board

When we say blackboard, you know it’s something I can write on it and it’s actually probably green, most of the time.

That's our other big clue that we've got a compound on our hands. Even though its meaning is obviously related to its parts, the relationships are a lot more loose than what you'd find in your average noun phrase.
If you're still not sure you're dealing with a compound, just try modifying part of it, pointing something at just that one bit. Since a compound word really is a complete unit, trying to attach something to only a piece of it won’t really work.

the blueberries vs . the blue car

We can easily separate blue and car with the same meaning, but if we separate blue and berries they make a different meaning.

You can add the word 'blue' to 'berries' and make 'blueberries'. But you cannot add an adverb and say 'really blueberries'. Phrases like 'really blue car' or 'really delicious food' are fine, because in those, 'blue' and 'delicious' are two separate words so that 'really' can modify it.

deep breath vs . heavy rain

These are noun phrases.

They are not compound nouns but noun phrases (typical collocations). We know this because the first element can be modified, 'really deep breath'/'really heavy rain'. By contrast, the first element in a compound cannot be modified.

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