English Morphology (part III) : Compounding

The combination of lexical categories called compounding. It consists of nouns, adjectives, verbs, or prepositions. The morpheme which determines the category of the entire word is called the head.


a)      Noun compounds

  • greenhouse
  • bluebird
  • fire engine
  • oil well

b)      Verb compounds

  • overlook
  • underestimate
  • dropkick
  • breakdance

c)      Adjective compounds

  • red hot
  • deep blue
  • sky blue
  • nation wide

Compound can be combined with other lexical categories to create larger compounds. The word formation processes responsible for derivation and compounding can interact with each other.

  • dog food box
  • baseball bat rack

Structure above is compounds formed from smaller compounds.

Structure below is the combining of a simple word (debate) with the derived word abortion.

  • abortion debate

Properties of Compound

Compounds are not consistent since they are written as single words, or with an intervening hyphen, or as separate word sometimes. There is an important generalization to be made in terms of pronunciation.

Compounds (1st element generally stressed) versus non-compounds (2nd element generally stressed):





Greénhoùse ‘an indoor garden’ Greèn hoúse ‘a house painted green
Bláckboàrd ‘a chalkboard Blàck boárd ‘a board which is black’
Wét suìt ‘a diver’s costume’ Wèt suít ‘a suit that is wet’

Tense and plural markers can typically not be attached to the first element though they can be added to the compound as a whole.

  • Tense on the 1st element in a compound         à [dropped kick]

Tense on the entire compound                        à [drop kick]ed

  • Plural marking on the 1st element in a compound is usually disallowed

à [foxes hunter] ; [roads map]

(there a few exceptions such as passers-by, parks supervisor and mothers-in-law)

Plural on the entire compound is the norm à [fox hunter]s ; [road map]s

An A-N compound can be identified with the help of a different test. As illustrated below, the A in a compound cannot be preceded by a word such as very.

  • Compound with very à We live to a very [greenhouse].
  • Very with adjective that isn’t part of compound à We live next to a very green fence.

Types of compounds

Compounds are used to express a wide range of semantic relationships in English.

Some N-N compounds called endocentric:



Steamboat ‘a boat powered by steam’
Air hose ‘a hose that carries air’
Fire truck ‘a vehicle used to put out fires’
Fire drill ‘a practice in the event of a fire’
Bath towel ‘a towel used after bathing’

In most cases, component of compound identifies the general class to which the meaning of the entire word belongs. In a smaller number of cases, the meaning of the compound does not follow from the meanings of its parts in this way. Thus, examples below called exocentric,

  • Greenbottle = a fly of the genus lucilia (not a type of bottle)
  • Redneck = an ultra-conservative; white working-class person (not a type of neck)
  • Sugar-daddy = a woman’s lover who is deemed to be both overgenerous and much too old for her (not a type of sugar-coated father)

Examples below are very striking differences between endocentric and exocentric compounds where the head of the compound has an irregular plural.

Oak leaves Maple leafs (Toronto’s NHL hockey team)
Wisdom teeth Sabre tooths (extinct species of tiger)
Club feet Bigfoots (members of an extinct tiger species)
policemen Walkmans (a type of portable audio cassette player)

The exocentric compounds permit the plural suffix –s for words such as leaf, tooth, foot, and man, though these forms require an irregular plural when used elsewhere in the language.

Compounds in other languages

The practice of combining lexical categories to build a word is very widespread. With the exception of Tagalog, in which compounds are left-headed, these languages all have compounds in which the rightmost element is the head. A special type of compounding process involves incorporation (combination of a word/a noun with a verb to form a compound verb).


1)      Infix : an affix that is inserted inside the word

Example –>

The infix or is characteristic of hip-hop slang:

  • hizouse for house
  • shiznit for shit

Infixes also occur in some language games (ironic pseudo-sophistication):

  • Sophistimacated
  • Saxomaphone
  • Edumacation

Chemical nomenclature includes the infixes:

  • Picoline à pipecoline
  • lutidine à lupetidine
  • phenidine à phenetidine
  • xanthoxylin à xanthoxyletin

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk:

  • ungett-ABLE-at (something that one could not get at)
  • passER=by (a person who was passing by)
  • motherS-in-law (an alternative plural to “mother-in-laws).

2)      Reduplication: repeating the entire word (full reduplication) or partial reduplication

Example –>

  1. It’s a big … big … dog.
  2. Bling-bling
  3. The town is very very crowded.
  4. Teeny weeny
  5. Okey-dokey
  6. Zig-zag
  7. Wee-wee
  8. Hocus-pocus
  9. Itsy-bitsy
  10. Walkie-talkie

3)      Proclitic: is a clitic that precedes the word to which it’s phonologically joined. (lean forward)

Example –>

  1. The English article the, when unstressed and with a reduced vowel, is a proclitic (the house)
  2. “They love to dance” à “They love t’dance
  3. d’habitude
  4. an apple

4)      Internal change: is process that substitutes one none morphemic segment for another.

Examples –>

  1. Sing – sang
  2. Drive – drove
  3. Foot – feet
  4. Mouse – mice
  5. Tooth – teeth
  6. Geese – goose
  7. Man – men
  8. Break – broke – broken
  9. Sing – sang – sung
  10. Live – life
  11. Breath – breathe
  12. Prove – proof

5)      Suppletion : a morphological process where a root morpheme is replacing by phonologically unrelated form.

Example –>

  1. Go – went – gone
  2. Is/are – was/were – been
  3. Good – better – best
  4. Bad – worse – worst
  5. Bovine – cow

One thought on “English Morphology (part III) : Compounding

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