Words can be combined to form compound nouns. These are very common, and new combinations are invented almost daily. They normally have two parts. The second part identifies the object or person in question (man, friend, tank, table, room). The first part tells us what kind of object or person it is, or what its purpose is (police, boy, water, dining, bed):
- as one word. - Example: policeman, boyfriend,
- as two words joined with a hyphen. Example: dining-table
- as two separate words. Example: fish tank.
Stress is important in pronunciation, as it distinguishes between a compound noun (e.g. greenhouse) and an adjective with a noun (e.g. green house).
In compound nouns, the stress usually falls on the first syllable:
- a 'greenhouse = place where we grow plants (compound noun)
- a green 'house = house painted green (adjective and noun)
- a 'bluebird = type of bird (compound noun)
- a blue 'bird = any bird with blue feathers (adjective and noun)
Examples: breakdown, outbreak, outcome, cutback, drive-in, drop-out, feedback, flyover, hold-up, hangover, outlay, outlet, inlet, makeup, output, set-back, stand-in, takeaway, walkover.
A collective noun is a noun that denotes a collection of persons or things regarded as a unit.
Usage Note: In American usage, a collective noun takes a singular verb when it refers to the collection considered as a whole, as in:
- The family was united on this question.
- The enemy is suing for peace.
- My family are always fighting among themselves.
- The enemy were showing up in groups of three or four to turn in their weapons.
- In British usage, however, collective nouns are more often treated as plurals:
- The government have not announced a new policy.
- The team are playing in the test matches next week.
- The family is determined to press its (not their) claim.
Swan (Practical English Usage, New Edition, Oxford University Press, 1997) elaborates on this singular/plural usage, and disagrees about treating collective nouns as both singular and plural in the same construction:
"In British English, singular words like family, team, government, which refer to groups of people, can be used with either singular or plural verbs and pronouns.
- This team is/are going to lose.
- My family have decided to move to Nottingham. They think it's a better place to live.
- The average British family has 3.6 members. It is smaller and richer than 50 years ago.
- The government, who are hoping to ease export restrictions soon, â¦
- The government, which is elected by a simple majority, â¦
- My firm are wonderful. They do all they can for me.
- My firm was founded in the 18th century.
- The team are full of enthusiasm.
- A team which is full of enthusiasm has a better chance of winning.
- The group gave its first concert in June and they are already booked up for the next six months.
- the BBC
- England (e.g. the football team)
- The team is in Detroit this weekend. They have a good chance of winning."
While there are different ways that compound nouns can be formed (using adjectives, prepositions, apostrophes, etc.), we are going to concentrate here on the noun + noun form:
bed + room = bedroom; police + officer = police officer, etc.
There are three different ways to form this type of compound noun:
"the closed form, in which the words are melded together, such as firefly â¦keyboard â¦notebook;
the hyphenated form, such as sky-scraper â¦ ski-boot â¦ girl-friend;
and the open form, such as post office â¦ history book â¦ mineral water."
Just exactly how and why these three forms exist is not exactly clear, but it seems likely that the process will begin with two words, become hyphenated after a time, and then eventually end up as just one word. It is curious that even good dictionaries sometimes disagree with how compound nouns should be spelt!
In these noun + noun structures, the first noun behaves similarly to an adjective, in that it describes or modifies the second noun:
- A car park is a place for parking cars;
- A history book is a book of history.
Another issue to consider is pronunciation. Most noun + noun structures have the main stress on the first word:
post office; car park; fruit juice.
There are, however, quite a few exceptions to this rule:
meat pie; garden table.
This type of compound noun is commonly used to classify particular types of things, and especially for well-known "classes" of things:
Compare a maths book; a geography book; a physics book, which are all books commonly found in schools, to a book about pollution, NOT a pollution book.
We have provided a very basic explanation of this use of compound nouns, an area of grammar that many people consider to be amongst the most difficult.
Briefly, the difference countable and uncountable nouns can be explained as follows:
Countable nouns are things we can count, and have both singular and plural forms:
A boy; two boys; a car; two cars
You can use a/an before countable nouns.
Uncountable nouns are things that we cannot count. They do not have a plural form:
Air, sand, ice, wisdom (NOT airs, sands, ices, wisdoms).
You cannot use a/an before an uncountable noun. Instead, you can use a measurement and the word of:
- A breath of air
- A grain of sand
- A block of ice
- A lot of wisdom
- The air is clean.
- The sand feels hot.
- This coffee tastes horrible.