Compound Nouns: Putting Words Together

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20 December, 2018

What do these five words have in common: hotdog, fireworks, well-being, waistline, sunset and ice cream? They could all describe a fun holiday celebration. For example:

My holiday was

wonderful! I went to a friend's party and we laughed, ate and had a lovely time. We grilled hotdogs and made ice cream. Then, after sunset, we all went down to the river to watch the fireworks. It was a great time...but probably terrible for my waistline!

Great story! But what is the grammatical connection between all the words we talked about? They are all compound nouns and that is our subject today.

A compound noun is a noun made by putting two or more words together to act as one noun. These nouns can be written as one word (as in fireworks and waistline), as hyphenated words (as in well-being), or as separate words (as in ice cream).

Compound nouns often have different meanings from their separate words. For example, if you had never heard of a "hotdog," you probably would not know its meaning just from the words "hot" and "dog." A hotdog is a small cooked sausage usually made from beef or pork.

Making compound nouns

Compound nouns are often constructed from two parts of speech. The most common are:

  • noun + noun, as in ice cream, waistline and fireworks, which you heard earlier in the program
  • adjective + noun, as in hotdog and greenhouse.
    Greenhouses at botanical gardens carry plants from around the world.
  • and noun + verb, as in sunset and rainfall.
    The average yearly rainfall in Washington, DC is around 40 inches.

But, compound nouns are also formed in other ways, such as:

  • noun + preposition, as in passer-by
    A passer-by witnessed the car accident on 17th Street.
  • gerund + noun, as in swimming pool and washing machine
    I'm so glad that our hotel has a swimming pool!
  • adjective + verb, as in public speaking and dry cleaning
    Can you call and see if the dry cleaning is ready?
  • verb + preposition, as in take-off and lookout
    Flight attendants, please prepare for take-off.
  • and preposition + verb, as in output and overthrow.
    The company increased output by extending its office hours.

Plurals and possessives

OK, moving on to plurals and possessives.

In most plural compound nouns, the -s goes at the end. But here's a little more to know:

If the compound noun has no space or does have a space in between words, the -s usually goes at the end, such as in greenhouses, waistlines, washing machines and swimming pools.

If the compound noun has a hyphen or hyphens, the -s usually goes at the end of the noun, such as in secretaries-general, passers-by and fathers-in-law.

To make the possessive form, simply add an apostrophe -s to the end of the complete word, such as in these examples:

My daughter-in-law's dress is being made.

The dry cleaner's number is on the table.

How to pronounce

Lastly, let's talk about stress. In spoken language, stress is giving greater loudness or force to part of a word. Correct stress is very important for compound nouns.

We usually stress the first syllable. For instance, when I say the word "fireworks," I put greater loudness on "fire." If I put the stress on "works," it changes the meaning and would confuse the listener.

Listen to more examples that stress the first syllable:

swimming pool
football
haircut
bedroom
take-off
ice cream

And, just for fun, here's an old – but still popular – song about ice cream:

I scream
You scream
We all scream for ice cream!

Not all compound nouns follow the rule of first syllable stress. Proper nouns that are more than one word are considered compound nouns and they usually carry the stress at the start of the second word.

Listen for the stress in these proper nouns:

New Orleans
Las Vegas
Mount Rainier
Grand Canyon
South Africa
New Zealand
Secretary-General
Prime Minister

By now in your English studies, you've already used many compound nouns. And, surely, you'll use many more. So, practice ones that are useful to you in speaking and writing! You can use a good dictionary to check how we say and write them.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Practice

  1. Look at the following list of compound nouns and decide what parts of speech they are made from (example: bottle opener = noun + noun). If you are not sure what the words mean, you can use the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

football
haircut
software
toothpaste
fish tank
takeout
highway
website
small talk
firefighter
self-restraint
commander-in-chief
singer-songwriter

2. Write a paragraph about yourself or someone else. Use 3-5 compound nouns. You can use compound nouns from today's program and practice and/or that you find somewhere else.

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Words in This Story

waistlinen. the distance around the smallest part of your waist

hyphenatedadj. connected with a hyphen punctuation mark

sausagen. ground meat that is usually stuffed into a narrow tube of animal skin

greenhousen. a building that has glass walls and a glass roof and that is used for growing plants

outputn. the amount of something that is produced by a person or thing

pluraladj. relating to a form of a word that refers to more than one person or thing

possessiveadj. relating to a form of a word that shows that something or someone belongs to something or someone else

apostrophen. the punctuation mark 700; used to show the possessive form of a noun

syllablen. any one of the parts into which a word is naturally divided when it is pronounced

proper nounn. a word or group of words that is the name of a person, place, or thing and usually begins with a capital letter

dictionaryn. a book that lists words in alphabetical order and gives information about meanings, forms and pronunciations

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