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Next: 6 Orthography of compounds Up: Compounds: Forms Previous: 4 The Right-hand Head

5 Phrase-structure Rules

Some important linguists argue that the structure of a word and the structure of a sentence are akin. Therefore they apply rules which are used in sentence syntax to word syntax or the structure of words. Thus rules of this kind are not only found in Syntax but also in Morphology. The rules we are concerned with are the phrase-structure rules.

The general phrase-structure rule for compounding would be as follows:

A word consists of a word plus a word.

This is rewritten as:

W tex2html_wrap_inline87 W W

We can appy this context free rule to:

Noun compounds


Examples: N tex2html_wrap_inline87 N N : fly-paper; gas-mask; mothball; cottage cheese; hellhound

N tex2html_wrap_inline87 A N : hothouse; sour-dough; greenfly; sickroom

N tex2html_wrap_inline87 P N : undergraduate; outskirts; near-sightedness; underdog

Adjective compounds



A tex2html_wrap_inline87 N A : world-wide; user-friendly; seaworthy snowblind

A tex2html_wrap_inline87 A A : redhot; north-west; dark green; Roman Catholic

A tex2html_wrap_inline87 P A : overwhelming; outspoken

The syntactic information which is provided by phrase-structure rules:

Compounds with a verbal constituent

A Compound nouns with a verbal constituent

1 verb + noun / adjective


These transparent combinations can be analyzed in terms of predicate argument structure, e.g. scarecrow - to scare (verb) the crows (theme/patient), which will be done more extensively for the examples in C.1.


(1) scarecrow

(2) pickpocket

(3) diehard

B Compound verbs

1 verb + verb

V tex2html_wrap_inline87 V V

This type of compounding has got an appositional character because the two verbal elements are simply put together without any further dependency holding between them. These compound verbs usually signify a combination of actions which are closely connected or follow each other within the fraction of a second (cf. example (5)).


(4) freeze-dry

(5) drop-kick

2 verb + preposition / preposition + verb


2.1 preposition + verb

In order to distinguish this way of compounding from "pseudo-verbal compounds" (C.2), it is necessary to refer to the semantic level of interpretation. As for the previous compounds, this type of compound verbs consisting of two independent morphemes follows the determinant/determinatum relationship (cf. Marchand 1969, p.96). The verb functions as the determinatum because, as the head of the compound, it refers to the action which is described by the compound. So the verb to outgrow (example (1)) can be treated as a variation of the verb to grow. The other constituent, the preposition, works as a determinant, which specifies the determinatum.


(6) outgrow

(7) underestimate

(8) overhear

(9) offload

2.2 verb + preposition

Some linguists like Francis Katamba, for example, argue that phrasal verbs consisting of a verb and a preposition or adverbial particle must be regarded as a compound. In contrast to Katamba, Marchand lists them under the heading phrases and treats them separately as lexicalized items, which means that they are regarded as an entity which can only be modified as a whole. However, phrasal verbs are different from other compounds as the constituents can be separated within a sentence , e.g. He took it over. Apart from that, these phrasal verbs are often nominalized, which form another type of compound nouns or adjectives: N tex2html_wrap_inline87 V P .


(10)    a.        to take off                  

        b.        take-off 

(11)    a.        to take over                

        b.        take-over

(12)    a.        to hand out                

        b.        hand-out

C Special forms of compounding involving verbal constituents

1 Verbal compounds

Verbal compounds are sometimes also called synthetic or secondary compounds because they contain a nominal or adjectival head which is derived from a verb . The underlying structure of the compound can be interpreted in terms of predicate argument structure. The nonverbal head serves as an argument (e.g. agent, theme/patient, instrument) of the deverbal head. This kind of compounding is very productive because almost any active or passive phrase can be turned into a verbal compound.

1.1 Compound nouns



(18)        bookseller:                 a  seller AGENT of books THEME


                N                       N        

                book                sell <Ag,Th>    er

(19) sheep-shearing: shearing VERB sheep THEME

1.2 Compound adjectives



(20) God-fearing: fearing VERB God THEME

(21) hand-written: written VERB by hand INSTRUMENT

2 Pseudo-compound verbs

In contrast to the actual compound verbs described under B.2 , the determinant/ determinatum relationship does not apply to the so-called pseudo-compound verbs. In the case of the verb to spotlight the whole compound does not have any determinatum at all because the word means 'to turn spotlights on', but the idea of 'to turn on s.o.' is not expressed in the actual word. As these verbs are derived from compound nouns or adjectives, the verbs themselves cannot be called compounds.

2.1 Conversion

Conversion means that a compound noun is taken over as a verb. This process can also be called zero-derivation and is, strictly speaking, no example of compounding.


(13) to spotlight [noun + noun]V = '(to turn) spotlights on ...'

(14) to blacklist [adjective + noun]V = '(to put someone) on a list of suspicious persons'

2.2 Back-formation

These "compound verbs" are derived from synthetic (=verbal) compounds by back-formation. These synthetic compounds, which are nouns or adjectives, are supposed to be based on a compound verb of the same kind. So the compound noun housekeeper is supposed to refer to the originally non-existing compound verb to housekeep. In fact, the process of derivation works the other way round. The ending for the agentive noun (-er) or the participle (-ing, -en/ed) is clipped off the verbal compound to form a pseudo-compound verb. However, these pseudo-compound verbs may act as models of analogous word-formations, which deserve the label "compound", e.g. the formation of to house-sit following the pattern of to baby-sit.


(15) to housekeep: derived from housekeeper [noun + verb + er]N

(16) to baby-sit: derived from babysitter [noun + verb + er]N

(17) to sightsee: derived from sightseeing [noun + verb-ing]N

(18) to bottlefeed: derived from bottlefed [noun + verb-en]A

3 Phrases

It is questionable whether it is possible to call these phrases compounds or if it is more suitable to treat them as lexicalized phrases. However, these entities consist of free morphemes which are put together to form a new word. In this respect, they fit a general definition of compounds. Especially in the case of the kinship term -in-law it seems to be justified to think of a deliberate combination of elements which is typical of compounding because any kinship term (mother, father,brother etc.) can be combined with -in-law to form a new left-headed compound.


(22) do-it-yourself

(23) mother-in-law

(24) lady-in-waiting

(25) forget-me-not

next up previous
Next: 6 Orthography of compounds Up: Compounds: Forms Previous: 4 The Right-hand Head

Dafydd Gibbon
Thu Jun 13 17:33:32 MET DST 1996