compound noun

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

compound nouns
The words classroom, hot dog, bookmark, chalkboard, and wastepaper basket are all compound nouns. (Fox Broadcasting Company and 20th Television)


In English grammar, a compound noun is a construction made up of two or more nouns that function as a single noun. Also called a nominal compound.

The spelling rules for compound nouns are somewhat arbitrary. Compound nouns can be written as separate words (e.g., tomato juice), as words linked by a hyphen (sister-in-law), or as one word (schoolteacher).

A compound noun whose form no longer clearly reveals its origin (such as bonfire or marshall) is sometimes called an amalgamated compound.

Many place names (or toponyms) are amalgamated compounds—for example, Norwich (north + village) and Sussex (south + Saxons).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[O]ne day before the end of the school year, I was sitting in my homeroom class when the teacher made an announcement: Central High School would be integrating in the fall."
    ( Carlotta Walls Lanier with Lisa Frazier Page, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School. One World Books, 2009)
  • "America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense human rights invented America."
    (President Jimmy Carter, farewell address, January 14, 1981)

  • "Some movie stars wear their sunglasses even in church. They're afraid God might recognize them and ask for autographs."
    (Attributed to comedian Fred Allen)

  • The whole idea started with a parent who wanted to do a fundraiser for the snowboarding team at Nevada Union.
  • "Dad calls me on the walkie-talkie again. 'I'm coming,' I say, feeling a little annoyed at him."
    (Christine Maclean, Mary Margaret Meets Her Match. Puffin, 2008)

  • Meanings of Compound Nouns
    - "A compound noun is different from a sequence of an adjective and a noun, because of the ways the meanings of the parts combine to make the meaning of the whole. Compare, for example, tractor driver (compound noun) with careless driver (adjective-plus-noun). A careless driver is both careless and a driver, while a tractor driver is a driver but is certainly not a tractor!"
    (James J. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

    - "The compound noun structure is extremely varied in the types of meaning relations it can indicate. It can be used to indicate what someone does (language teacher), what something is for (waste-paper basket, grindstone), what the qualities of something are (whiteboard), how something works (immersion heater), when something happens (night frost), where something is (doormat), what something is made of (woodpile), and so on."
    (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

    - "Compound nouns do not admit coordination or modification of their component elements:
    *soft and hardware, *extremely software; *pain and insect killers; *persistent painkiller; *silk and earth worms, *pure silkwork."
    Angela Downing with Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)
  • The Head of a Compound Noun
    "An interesting property of most compounds is that they are headed. This means that one of the words that make up the compound is syntactically dominant. In English the head is normally the item on the right hand of the compound. The syntactic properties of the head are passed on to the entire compound. Thus, . . . if we have a compound like easychair which is made up of the adjective easy and the noun chair, syntactically the entire word is a noun."
    (Francis Katamba, English Words: Structure, History, Usage, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)

  • Possessive Compound Nouns
    "Remember to place an apostrophe after the whole of a compound noun, even if the last word is not the head word of the phrase: The Mayor of London's dog (the dog belongs to the Mayor, not London)."
    (Stewart Clark and Graham Pointon, The Routledge Student Guide to English Usage. Routledge, 2016)