What Is Compounding in the English Language?

Putting pieces of a puzzle together
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In English grammar, compounding is the process of combining two words (free morphemes) to create a new word (commonly a noun, verb, or adjective). Also called composition, it is from the Latin for "put together".

Compounds are written sometimes as one word (sunglasses), sometimes as two hyphenated words (life-threatening), and sometimes as two separate words (football stadium). Compounding is the most common type of word-formation in English.

Types of Compounds

Compounding exists in several different forms and parts of speech, including the following:

Examples and Observations

  • "Compounds are not limited to two words, as shown by examples such as bathroom towel-rack and community center finance committee. Indeed, the process of compounding seems unlimited in English: starting with a word like sailboat, we can easily construct the compound sailboat rigging, from which we can, in turn, create sailboat rigging design, sailboat rigging design training, sailboat rigging design training institute, and so on."
    (Adrian Akmajian et al., "Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication". MIT Press, 2001)
  • "Trammell was, Hollenbeck said, 'just a loud-mouthed backslapping small-town handshaker who's got a job much too big for him.'”
    (Loren Ghiglione, "CBS's Don Hollenbeck". Columbia University Press, 2008)
  • Buffy: No actual witches in your witch group?
    Willow: No. Bunch of wannablessedbes. You know, nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she's a sister to the dark ones."
    (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan in "Hush." "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", 1999)

Stress Test

"Typically a compound begins as a kind of cliché, two words that are frequently found together, as are air cargo or light colored. If the association persists, the two words often turn into a compound, sometimes with a meaning that is simply the sum of the parts (light switch), sometimes with some sort of figurative new sense (moonshine). The semantic relationships of the parts can be of all kinds: a window cleaner cleans windows, but a vacuum cleaner does not clean vacuums. We can be sure we have a compound when the primary stress moves forward; normally a modifier will be less heavily stressed than the word it modifies, but in compounds, the first element is always more heavily stressed." (Kenneth G. Wilson, "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English". Columbia University Press, 1993)

Distinguishing Features of Compounds

"[In most compounds] the rightmost morpheme determines the category of the entire word. Thus, greenhouse is a noun because its rightmost component is a noun, spoonfeed is a verb because feed also belongs to this category, and nationwide is an adjective just as wide is...

"English orthography is not consistent in representing compounds, which are sometimes written as single words, sometimes with an intervening hyphen, and sometimes as separate words. In terms of pronunciation, however, there is an important generalization to be made. In particular, adjective-noun compounds are characterized by a more prominent stress on their first component...

"A second distinguishing feature of compounds in English is that tense and plural markers cannot typically be attached to the first element, although they can be added to the compound as a whole. (There are some exceptions, however, such as passers-by and parks supervisor.)" (William O'Grady, J. Archibald, M. Aronoff, and J. Rees-Miller, "Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction". Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001)

Plurals of Compounds

"Compounds generally follow the regular rule by adding the regular -s inflection to their last element. . . .

"The following two compounds are exceptional in taking the inflection on the first element:


"A few compounds ending in -ful usually take the plural inflection on the last element, but have a less common plural with the inflection on the first element:

mouthful/mouthfuls or mouthsful
spoonful/spoonfuls or spoonsful

"Compounds ending in -in-law allow the plural either on the first element or (informally) on the last element:

sister-in-law/sisters-in-law or sister-in-laws"

(Sidney Greenbaum, "Oxford English Grammar". Oxford University Press, 1996)

Compounds in the Dictionary

"Evidently, the definition of what counts as a single dictionary entry is fluid and allows for very wide margins; any attempt at further precision is impossible because of the unlimited potential for compounding and derivation. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] policy on compounds and derivatives is indicative of how blurred the line between a 'headword' and a compound or a derivative can be:

Compounds are frequently collected together in a section or group of sections at or near the end of an entry. They are followed by a quotation paragraph in which examples of each compound are presented in alphabetical order of the compound. Some major compounds are entered as headwords in their own right. . . .

Clearly, the size of the dictionary records exceeds by far the vocabulary of an individual speaker." (Donka Minkova and Robert Stockwell, "English Words." "The Handbook of English Linguistics", ed. by Bas Aarts and April McMahon. Blackwell, 2006)

Compounding in Shakespeare's King Lear

"Shakespeare seized upon the inherent creative energies of English compounding and transformed them into art. Examples abound throughout his oeuvre, but "King Lear" shines an especially bright spotlight on his combinatorial craft. . . .

"First, we behold Lear’s 'compounding' rage. He agonizes over one daughter’s 'sharp-toothed unkindness' and wills the 'fen-sucked fogs' to foul her. After another daughter also repudiates him, Lear offers his submission to 'hot-blooded France' and invokes the 'Thunder-bearer,' 'high-judging Jove.' . . .

"Next, we learn of nature’s 'compounding' wildness. A gentleman reports that a raving Lear is out roving a desolate, storm-struck heath, where he strives 'in his little world of man to out-scorn/The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain' from which even the 'cub-drawn bear' and 'belly-pinched wolf' seek shelter. Lear is only accompanied by his loyal fool, 'who labors to out-jest/ His heart-struck injuries.' . . .

"Amid the forceful modifiers of 'oak-cleaving' and 'all-shaking' are the 'thought-executing' 'vaunt-couriers': lightning bolts." (John Kelly, "Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds." Slate, May 16, 2016)

The Lighter Side of Compounding

  • "My dad didn't read things like Playboy or National Enquirer. He was a science nerd with a crew cut, plastic pocket protectors, and a bow tie, and the only magazines at our house were Scientific American and National Geographic. I felt more connected to Karen's loud, messy, National Enquirer-reading, Twinkie-eating, Coca-Cola-drinking, station wagon-driving, bust-enhancing household than to my polite, organized, National Geographic–reading, bean sprout, and tofu-serving, mind-improving, VW bus-driving household." (Wendy Merrill, "Falling Into Manholes: The Memoir of a Bad/Good Girl". Penguin, 2008)
  • "Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I'd like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people, and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye, and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, . . . hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey...he is! Hallelujah!... Where's the Tylenol?" (Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", 1989)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Compounding in the English Language?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-compounding-words-1689894. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 29). What Is Compounding in the English Language? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-compounding-words-1689894 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Compounding in the English Language?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-compounding-words-1689894 (accessed February 6, 2023).