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Michael IELTS Band 9
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Compound nouns: why using them in your writing can be a minefield

When you use a compound noun, your text is shorter, neater and hopefully also very natural.  By using them, you can omit prepositions and perhaps also articles.  However, many students make mistakes in their use. For example, 

they select compound nouns that do not fit the context or 

they coin new compound nouns that have no obvious meaning in context or sound strange.

In my opinion, one of the reasons that students struggle with compound nouns is because they do not understand well enough the relationship between the nouns. To put this a different way, they are not sure which prepositions and/or other words they would need if they did not use a compound noun.

Here are some example:

a) Family life = the life OF families

b) Family entertainment = entertainment FOR families

c) Family values = (positive) values RELATED TO the family

d) A family recipe = a recipe OF or WITHIN a family

In each of these examples, the form of the compound noun is identical (noun + noun) but the relationship between the word “family” and the other noun is different. 

The only thing that the compound nouns have in common is that there is some kind of relationship between the nouns; the nouns are related.  However, the general form of the compound noun (noun + noun) does not help you to understand what that relationship is. 

Let’s add some more confusion!  What does the word “roof tile” mean in these two sentences? 

a) The tiles on that roof will leak.  You have not used roof tiles. You must have used another kind of tile.

b) During the storm, some of our roof tiles were blown off by the wind.


a) Tiles FOR roofs

b) The tiles ON or OF the roof

From this, we can see that the same compound noun can have different meanings in different contexts. 

Lessons to learn

1. Learn compound nouns from context that is meaningful to you.  In other words, the relationship between the nouns is obvious from the context.  Then practice using the new compound nouns in similar contexts in your own writing and get feedback. Don’t think that, just because you understood the meaning, you can then use this compound noun accurately whenever you want.

2. In exams or situations where precision is important, use only compound nouns that you know well and have experiencing of using.

3. If in doubt, do not use compound nouns.  Instead, formulate a phrase with prepositions and other language that expresses the meaning accurately.

There is so much more that can be said about compound nouns but perhaps this is enough for one short article.  

What difficulties do you find in the accurate use of compound nouns?

2018年4月2日 08:35
Comments · 20

That reminds me of a job I saw advertised by my local social services department:

Domestic violence co-ordinator

The mind boggles!

@Su.Ki There are other stupid titles like that. At my place of work the person to whom you should report cases of harassment or bullying is called the 'Harassment Officer.' Everyone I've spoken to about it thinks it's an utterly stupid job title. It sounds like they're responsible for coordinating the harassment. I mean... should it not be 'Anti-Harassment Officer?' Rather does beg the question as to who came up with the name in the first place.
The (real) organization, the "American Cancer Society," fights cancer; but, based on its name alone, it could just as well be an organization that supports and promotes cancer.
Thank you for the article. I have always found difficult to tell if it is a compound noun or a possessive case. For instance "the government decision" or "the government's decision". Another example "the company success" or "the company's success". I can also use your example "the family values" or "the family's values".  

Kseniia, Here are my thoughts on the issues you raised. 

First of all - the use of the possessive "'s".  This is very natural for people, groups, and time expressions. For abstract qualities e.g. "honesty", it is usually not natural, except in literature.  For inanimate objects e.g. "house" or other abstract nouns e.g. project, it is possible but there are dangers.

Firstly, if there is a known compound noun, then this will always sound natural (e.g. house prices, printer ink) and there is a risk that the possessive form will sound less natural (e.g. houses' prices and printers' ink both sound strange). So, if you can, investigate the existence of compound nouns in sentence databases like

Secondly, English may not naturally consider the relationship to be possessive ("of")
e.g. 1. printer ink = ink FOR printers,
e.g. 2. the lounge carpet = carpet IN the lounge". 

We could say "of" but this would sound formal and unnatural on both cases. So we use either a compound noun if one exists, which it does here, or a prepositional phrase. Both are equally natural.

So one strategy is to avoid using the possessive " 's" for inanimate objects and abstract concepts.  Probably, you will be safer but obviously I can only generalise and a lot depends on language level and first language interference.

I am sure my answer is incomplete and I could say a lot more.  This is an issue I'd like to come back to when I have more time.

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Michael IELTS Band 9
Language Skills
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Learning Language
German, Italian