Business Writing Tip #102—Compound Nouns

Olympic Park at Letna

Olympic Park at Letna

In the past few weeks, and most recently today, people have asked me about compound nouns. With the Winter Olympics underway, and one of Prague’s beautiful parks converted into a snowy playground complete with ice rinks, I thought it was timely to write about word combinations, compound nouns, like ‘ice rink’.

Unfortunately there are no rules for how we form compound nouns. Learners of English just need to learn them as expressions.

What is a compound noun?

It’s an expression that’s made up of more than one word, which functions as a noun when you use it in a sentence. I’ll now look at some common types.

Noun + Noun

Some of them are made up of noun + noun and they tell us something about what something is made of, where it is, when something happens or what someone does. Some examples include:

Orange juice, waste paper, ice rink, office desk, morning call, language teacher, working party, company merger, conference call, sales team, marketing strategy, personal computer, head hunter, executive director, delivery date, trade union, retail outlet, trade fair, market research, address book.

Usually the first noun in a noun + noun combination is singular, but there are some exceptions: savings account, customs officer, clothes shop, arts festival

Sometimes they can include more than two nouns: air-traffic controller, value added tax

Sometimes they are written as two words like the examples above, but at other times they are joined and written as one word, or perhaps joined with a hyphen (although in most cases the hyphen is optional).

One word: chairperson, keyboard, network, greenhouse, deadline, overhead

Hyphenated: office-worker, changing-room.

Noun + Preposition + Noun

English also has compound nouns that are made up of two nouns joined by a preposition.

Cup of tea (compare with teacup)

Pack of cards

Adjective + Noun

Then we have some that are formed from an adjective + noun.

Shorthand, special delivery, highway, freeway

Noun + -ing, -ing + Noun

And finally there are some which are formed by combining the –ing form of a verb with a noun. Sometimes the verb comes before the noun, and sometimes after.

Before:           living room, working party, swimming pool, washing machine

After:              film-making, risk-taking, life-saving

Pesky prepositions getting in on the act

Another group of compound nouns is made up of verbs + prepositions/adverbs (and the order varies as does the need for a hyphen).

Break-out, intake, outcome, read-out, check-in, handover

I hope this post hasn’t confused you too much. Compound nouns are tricky. When I’m not sure how a one is written I find the dictionary is my best friend!

Be careful to check what part of speech the word is being used as because sometimes we might use the same combination of words as a noun and as a verb, and often the only difference is whether there’s a hyphen or not, of if it’s written as one word or two.

For example:

Noun: double check            Verb: double-check

Noun: markup                     Verb: mark up

Noun: write-off                    Verb: write off




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