Compounding - the general structure of compounds and their most striking features

Seminar Paper, 2009

8 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1. Introduction

Is a green house a glass building to grow plants in, or simply a green colored house? And if nurse shoes are shoes for a nurse, are alligator shoes, shoes for an alligator? Ambiguity is a huge problem in almost every language, but ambiguous words can often be explained, when taking a closer look at how they were compounded.

In the context of word-formation, the process of compounding plays a major role in English, as well as in many other languages. Since compounding is, next to affixation, one of the two most important derivation processes, it is reasonable to take a closer look at it. Therefore this paper will examine the structure and the features of English compounds. I will begin with a definition of compounds in general, before illustrating compound stress patterns, recursivity, headedness and the binary structure of compounds. Then I will analyze the most important classes of compounds and investigate the different possibilities to link nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Besides that, I will present some ways how to interpret certain compounds and show some exceptions. Furthermore, I will present other forms of compounds, as neoclassical and copulative compounds, and examine their structure as well. As a final point I will close this paper off with concluding remarks.

2. Compounds in General

2.1. What is a compound?

When creating new words in English, the processes of word-formation take place in the human mind. Linguists talk about the word-formation process of compounding, when two existing free lexical morphemes are combined to form a new free lexical morpheme. There are several possible combinations of different word classes, for example a noun and a verb (hand-wash), an adjective and a verb (software), a preposition and an adjective (overactive) and many more. However, one cannot randomly join words to form a new word. The combination of two words is not considered to be a compound when one of the elements does not carry any new information. For instance the sequence egg bird would not be considered to be a word, because all birds come from eggs (cf Aitchison 2004: 151). Since egg does not carry new information, the sequence is not a compound.

2.2. Stress

Another way to ascertain whether a sequence of words is a compound or not, is to look at the stress. Two major stress rules are important for the differentiation between compounds and phrases: the “nuclear stress rule” and the “compound stress rule”. (cf Chomsky and Halle 1968: 17) While compounds are usually stressed on the left-hand element (compound stress rule), phrases tend to be stressed on the last word (nuclear stress rule). Therefore the green cárpet would be a phrase, while páyment problem is a compound (cf Plag 2003: 137). The difference in stress becomes particularly important when looking at sequences like greenhouse. While gréenhouse is a glass building in which plants grow, a green hóuse is a house that is colored green (cf Plag 2003: 138). However, as almost every grammatical rule, this one has exceptions as well. The so-called “systematic exceptions” are words with stress on the right-hand element like summer night (cf Plag 2003: 139). They are very rare and usually not considered to be compounds, but treated, as mentioned before, as “exceptions”.

2.3. Recursivity

Another interesting feature of compounds is the “recursivity” (cf Plag 2003: 134): Often a compound can undergo the process of compounding again. For instance the compound teaching award can be combined with university to form the new word university teaching award (cf Plag 2003: 134). Compounds which can be extended are called “recursive compounds . Theoretically there is no longest compound. However, one should not try to combine too many words, to avoid causing difficulties in understanding for the hearer.

2.4. Head and Modifier

When analyzing a compound, linguists differentiate between the “head” and the “non-head”. The head is usually the right-hand element of the compound. It carries the grammatical information of the newly formed word and most of the semantic meaning. Moreover it is important for the word class of the compound, since the word class of the head is the word class of the whole compound. Therefore the non-head, also called “modifier”, is usually the left-hand element, does not carry grammatical information and contributes less to the meaning of the compound as the head. When analyzing taxi drivers for example, it is obvious, that drivers is the head because it carries grammatical information (it is inflected: plural –s), determines the word class (driver is a noun, as well as taxi drivers) and carries the most semantic meaning (a taxi driver is ‘a kind of driver’ and not ‘a kind of taxi’). Compounds which follow these rules are called “endocentric compounds” (cf Kortmann 2005: 100). However, there are compounds in which the right-hand-element is not the semantic and grammatical head. Examples are hangover and pickpocket. These words are called “exocentric compounds” (cf Hacken 1994: 38) and will be analyzed in chapter 4.3.


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Compounding - the general structure of compounds and their most striking features
Free University of Berlin
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compound, stress, morphology, Recursivity, Head, Modifier, binary, structure, Nominal Compounds, Adjectival Compounds, verbal compounds, synthetic compounds, Neoclassical Compounds, Exocentric compounds, Copulative Compounds
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Julia Liese (Author), 2009, Compounding - the general structure of compounds and their most striking features, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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