logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2



If you have followed the guide to word formation, you will be aware that English makes new words in a variety of imaginative ways.  Compounding is one of them.
Here are some examples:

candlestick noun + noun
mouseclick noun + verb
blackboard adjective + noun
heartbeat noun + verb
farfetched adverb + participle (-ed)
oceangoing noun + participle (-ing)
windmill noun + noun

All of these example are written as one word but that is not necessarily true of all compounds.  For example:

whisky distillery noun + noun
bee-sting noun + verb
past tense adjective + noun
firing squad participle (-ing) + noun
quick frozen adjective + participle (-ed)
sea-green noun + adjective
washing machine noun + noun


A single sense

wine glass, wine-glass or wineglass  

Compounds, whether written as one word, hyphenated or as two words, represent a single sense.

They form discrete single-sense units and are treated as single lexemes grammatically.  In this guide, some compounds are written as two words, some as one word and some are hyphenated.  In many cases, it is the personal preference of the writer how such words are written and dictionaries often differ.  You may be in the majority choosing to write teacup as one word but coffee cup as two.  The senses and the way the compounds are used are parallel regardless of how you write them.

Stress, hyphenation and single words

A further little wrinkle is that one person's compound is another person's double adjective and all double adjectives need a hyphen (we write the wine-dark sea, not the wine dark sea and the brick-built house, not the brick built house).  There is also some indication of a cline in the language as a concept becomes increasingly common and conceptualised as a single idea, for example:


When gas for domestic lighting was first introduced, it was a noun-noun collocation with gas acting adjectivally (as a classifier or noun adjunct), but gradually, as the system became more common, the term changed until it is now considered a single compound lexeme.
So, initially, the stress fell on the word light, then it moved to the word gas, then the hyphenated form became common and finally the one-word form of the compound became conventional as it now is in gaslight (/ˈɡæ.slaɪt/).
The same stress movement can be observed with terms such as compact disc which, when first introduced, had the stress on disc (because compact was an adjective, stressed on its second syllable) but which is now a compound, stressed on the first syllable of compact, like this: /ˈkɒm.pækt dɪsk/ not /kəm.ˈpækt dɪsk/.

A recent example you are familiar with is the term mouseclick (a noun-verb compound making a noun) which appears to have entered the language quite rapidly.  Each revision of standard dictionaries includes new compounds.

For more on how compounds and other words are stressed, see the guide to word stress, linked in the list of related guides at the end.  Here, it is sufficient to say that nearly all true compounds are given a main stress on the first element and a secondary stress on the second element so we have, from the list above, e.g.:
    candlestick: /ˈkændl.stɪk/
ackboard: /ˈblæk.bɔːd/
iring squad: /ˈfaɪər.ɪŋ skwɒd/



In English, the second part of the compound usually determines two things:

  1. The word class.
    walking stick is a noun not a verb
    software is a noun not an adjective
    is a participle adjective not a noun
  2. The meaning.
    windmill is a type of mill not a type of wind
    bus driver
    is a type of driver not a type of bus
    is a type of woman not a type of police

For this reason, English compounding is described as right-headed.  The headword in the compound lies to the right.  Many related, especially Germanic, languages follow the same pattern of right-headedness as does, e.g., Turkish.

Other languages do things differently.
In left-headed languages someone who drives a taxi is not a taxi chauffeur but a chauffeur de taxi (French).  In French, a postage stamp is a timbre-poste, in Polish a znaczek Pocztowy and in Romanian a timbru poștal (stamp postage in all cases).  Other left-headed languages include Vietnamese and Welsh.

Many languages avoid compounding and will use a kind of genitive structure (a driver of buses, a stamp of postage etc.) or simply supply a different ending for someone who does something (as English can with gardener, teacher etc.) but, instead of deriving the person from the verb, they will derive the person from the noun and have taxista (Spanish) or tassista (Italian).


Types of compounds

There are three to consider – compounds acting as nouns, compounds acting as adjectives and compounds acting as verbs.


Noun compounds


Verb + Noun (or Noun + Verb)
There are two fundamental types of these.  Can you see the difference between the following pairs?  Click here when you have.

Type 1 Type 2
earthquake dressmaking
washing machine DVD-player
earache window cleaner

Verb + Adverbial
These are often lumped together with the verb + noun compounds we have just looked at but there is a distinction:

Many of these verb + adverbial compounds use a verb participle with -ing + a noun.  There are hundreds:
    printing paper, walking stick, babysitting, sunbathing
The verb may follow or precede the noun.
Other forms use the base of the verb plus a noun (again, following or preceding):
    flashlight, daydream, homework, plaything
Most of these are countable but homework is not.

Compounds without verbs
Almost all of these are noun + noun: oil well, sawdust, painkiller, fire engine, shirtsleeve, motorbike, headlamp etc.
There are a few which are adjective + noun compounds: softball, hardboard, fathead, brown-shirt etc.
For teaching purposes, it's useful to note the large group of compounds using containers:
matchbox, milk bottle, teacup, coffee cup, cigarette packet
and to help learners notice that the formation with of changes the meaning: a teacup vs. a cup of tea etc.)

In most cases, the right-hand word determines meaning and word class:
printing paper is a kind of paper not a kind of printing, a tax cut is a type of cut, not a type of tax and so on.
and babysitting is a verb (or a noun derived from the verb) and plaything is a noun not a verb.


Adjective compounds

ocean-going liner  

As with noun compounds, these are often formed with an object + verb.  For example, breathtaking (the breath is taken), firefighting (the fire is fought) etc.

Other adjectives can be formed as follows:

  1. Adverbial + Verb
        ocean going, self-employed, easy listening etc.
  2. Noun + Adjective
        homesick, travel weary, tax-free, battleship grey etc.
  3. Adjective + Adjective
        bittersweet, Franco-British, grey-green etc.
    The first part of such compounds can contain a derived adjective which cannot usually stand alone.

Again, headedness means that the right-hand word determines meaning and word class.


Verb compounds

to sightsee  

Verb compounds like sightsee are often back formations from the noun compound (in this case sightseeing).
There are two patterns:

  1. object + verb, for example:
    lip-read, flat-hunt, pen push
  2. adverbial + verb, for example
    sleepwalk, chain smoke, window-shop

Headedness is again apparent.



There is a very fuzzy border between compound nouns and classified nouns.  There is a guide to classifiers and partitives on this site, linked in the list below to which you should refer for more information.
Briefly, a classifier, or noun adjunct in some analyses) is distinguished from an adjective by being incapable of modification so, for example, while we can have:
    an excellent student
    the most excellent student
    a really excellent student
we cannot have
    *a most university student
    *a really university student
and so on.
The word excellent is an adjective describing a characteristic of the student but the word university is a classifier which categorises the student.
It is easy to see that it is a short step from classifier + noun to true compound nouns.  Many of the examples cited above could equally well be analysed as a classifier plus a noun so we would have, e.g.
    town planning
    lesson planning
    route planning
    garden planning

all analysable as compounding or as classifier structures.

Related guides
word formation for more on how this functions
word stress for more on considerations of word stress
classifiers and partitives for a guide to a connected area
teaching word formation for the next logical step

Yes, there's a test.

There's a good deal more on this in Quirk, R & Greenbaum, S, 1973, A University Grammar of English, Harlow: Longman (pages 444 et seq.)