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Describing language
Describing language

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3 Nouns make more nouns

Two hands are holding jigsaw pieces. One has the word ‘team’ written on it, the other has the word ‘work’ written on it. The hands are pushing these pieces of the jigsaw together.
Figure 5 Making a compound noun.

Now that you’ve learned about individual nouns, there’s one other important characteristic of nouns that you need to get to grips with. Nouns can combine to form other nouns: Cardiff + City = Cardiff City, birthday + party = birthday party. In fact birthday is itself a combination of two other nouns: birth + day. In this way, many nouns are made up of other nouns, and form either a new word (sales + person = salesperson), or a phrase (fishing + permit = fishing permit).

It’s not always clear how to write these combined nouns (which we call compound nouns). For example, you can find people writing hair brush, hair-brush and hairbrush. In general, the more everyday and frequently used a compound is, and the longer it has been used in the language, the more likely it is to be written as one word, rather than as two, or with a hyphen. You can look back at the history of compounds in the Oxford English Dictionary, where you will find that a word such as ‘toothbrush’ was often written as tooth-brush or as two words until as recently as the 1920s.

Activity 8 Creating compound nouns

Timing: This activity should take around 20 minutes

Look at the two lists below, A and B. Can you form compounds (including phrases, single words and hyphenated words)? Make a list of as many as you can.

List A List B











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There is no definitive answer here, unless we decide on a particular dictionary as the judge, because words are being used in new and unusual combinations every day. It’s the ability of nouns to be combined like this that makes it possible for us to talk about new situations and say new things. However, here are some of the more common combinations that you might have listed:

  • Backache, headache (toe-ache is not impossible, but not fixed)
  • Toe cap, pay cap
  • Health care (or healthcare) is quite common, and toothcare (or tooth care) is perfectly plausible. Back care could occur (for example in an advice leaflet for patients) but seems less fixed.
  • Health check, paycheck (in American English – this would be pay cheque in British English)

You may have spotted that, in creating compound nouns, you were combining two free morphemes (which you learned about in Week 1). The open-ended nature of the noun word class demonstrated in this activity – we can always combine words or create new nouns – is an important feature of language. Language is not a fixed, unchanging code. There will always be more nouns on the way, whenever there is a new concept that needs defining or a new invention that needs a name. Language is always in flux!