Compound Nouns – Combinations of two nouns

A compound noun is a fixed expression which is made up of more than one word and functions as a noun. Such expressions are frequently combinations of two nouns, e.g. address book, human being, science fiction. A number of compound nouns are related to phrasal verbs and these are dealt with in Unit 14.

Compound nouns may be written as two words, e.g. tin opener, bank account, or they may be written with a hyphen instead of a space between the words, e.g. pen-name, baby-sitter. Some expressions are occasionally written with a hyphen and occasionally as two separate words. For instance, both letter box and letter-box are correct. Sometimes they may be written as one word, e.g. earring.

Compound nouns may be countable, uncountable or only used in either the singular or the plural. There are examples of each of these types below. Check that you understand the meanings of each of the expressions listed. If you understand both elements of the expression, the meaning will usually be clear. If the meaning is not fairly obvious, then it is provided below.

Usually the main stress is on the first part of the compound but sometimes it is on the second part. The word which contains the main stress is underlined in the compound nouns below. Here are some examples of common countable compound nouns.

alarm clock  assembly line   blood donor   book token

burglar alarm contact lens credit card handcuffs

heart attack package holiday pedestrian crossing shoe horn

tea-bag windscreen windscreen wiper youth hostel

Here are some examples of common uncountable compound nouns. These are never used with an article.

air-traffic control      birth control   blood pressure    cotton wool

data-processing      family planning     food poisoning  pocket money

income tax   junk food   mail order    hay fever  (allergy to pollen)

Here are some examples of common compound nouns used only in the singular.

arms race (countries wanting most powerful weapons) death penalty

generation gap labour force

mother-tongue sound barrier

greenhouse effect welfare state

brain drain (highly educated people leaving country to work abroad)

Here are some examples of common compound nouns used only in the plural.

grass roots  luxury goods   human rights   kitchen scissors
race relations   roadworks   sunglasses     traffic lights