Root Compound (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

root compounds
Three common types of root compounds with examples.

In morphology, a root compound is a compound construction in which the head element is not derived from a verb. Also called a primary compound or an analytic compound. Contrast with synthetic compound.

Root compounds are made up of free morphemes, and the semantic relation between the two elements in a root compound is not inherently restricted.

Types of Compounds

Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Root Compounds and Synthetic Compounds
    "Let us call a NN [noun-noun] compound like hairnet or mosquito net, in which the right-hand noun is not derived from a verb and whose interpretation is therefore not precisely predictable on a purely linguistic basis, a primary or root compound. (The term 'root compound' is well established but not particularly appropriate, because primary compounds include many, such as climbing equipment or fitness campaigner, neither of whose components is a root in the sense [discussed earlier in the text]). Let us call a NN compound like hair restorer or slum clearance, in which the first element is interpreted as the object of the verb contained within the second, a secondary or verbal compound. (Yet another term sometimes used is synthetic compound.) Paradoxically, then, although verbs are relatively rare as elements in compounds in English (the swearword pattern is unusual), verbal compounds, in the sense just defined, are common."
    (Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structure. Edinburgh University Press, 2002)

    "Synthetic compounding is highly productive in English, as is the root compounding of nouns. Noun-adjective (sky-blue), adjective-noun (blackboard), and adjective-adjective (red hot) root compounds are also relatively productive. Root compounds of other categories are harder to form and relatively unproductive (for example, verb-verb compounds such as stir-fry or noun-verb compounds such as babysit)."
    (Rochelle Lieber, "English Word-Formation Processes: Observations, Issues, and Thoughts on Future Research." Handbook of Word-Formation, ed. by Pavol Štekauer and Rochelle Lieber. Springer 2005)
  • Root Compounding and Attributive Modification
    "The first member of a root compound in English is not very fussy as to its category. It can easily be a noun or an adjective, and even verb roots and bound roots that are never used as independent elements in the syntax are possible. It is also possible for two adjectives to combine to make an adjective, or for a noun and an adjective to form an adjective.
    (1a) doghouse, strawberry, suspension bridge, breezeway (N + N)
    (1b) greenhouse, blueberry, high school, fairway (A+N)
    (1c) drawbridge, runway (V+N)
    (1d) cranberry, huckleberry (X+N)
    (1e) red-hot, icy-cold, bitter-sweet (A+A)
    (1f) pea-green, steel-cold, sky-high (N+A)
    In contrast, the attributive construction is highly category-specific. Only an adjective can modify a noun in this way, not a noun or a verb, or a category-less root. Thus, blackbird contrasts with black bird and greenhouse contrasts with green house; the latter examples have simpler. more compositional meanings. But there are no expressions such as dog house, draw bridge, or cran berry (with no compound stress) that correspond in the same way to doghouse, drawbridge, and cranberry. Nor can a noun modify an adjective, or an adjective modify another adjective without the mediation of an affix like -ly."
    (Mark C. Baker, Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • The Righthand Head Rule
    "If two roots combine, as in bluebird, linguists call this a compound or a root compound. Most English compounds show a pattern that morphologists call the righthand head rule. It goes like this: If the first word is of category X and the second of category Y, then the compound is of category Y. (X and Y stand for the major grammatical categories: verb, noun, adjective, and preposition.) The head determines the category of the compound--so Y is the head. The rule can be written as X + Y → Y."
    (Strang Burton, Rose-Marie Dechaine, and Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson, Linguistics For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, 2012)