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There's a construction in English that allows us to form a compound adjective from a noun and a past participle. Examples:

This is a volunteer-built home.

Our newspaper is student-run.

After the spill, beaches were littered with oil-soaked birds.

The way it works is pretty transparent: [subject noun] + [verb participle] modifies [object noun]. However, it occurred to me that we can't just plug any subject, object, and verb into this formula. Some sound completely wrong/impossible:

*This is a cat-used litterbox.

*I wanted to buy my daughter the most child-wanted toy.

*I was uncomfortable lying down in the hobo-slept bed.

Thinking about it, I couldn't come up with a clear rule that determines why some words can fit this construction acceptably and some can't. Why is that?

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I think it's just novelty - they are odd because you haven't seen them. I'm sure there is a marketing PowerPoint somewhere listing the most child-wanted toy this christmas. –  mgb Jun 26 '12 at 1:03
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*Hobo-slept bed because sleep isn't transitive, and this is a Passive construction; i.e, == 'home that was built by volunteers', 'newspaper that is/was run by students', 'birds that were soaked by oil'. –  John Lawler Jun 26 '12 at 1:25
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The other two starred sentences, however, ought to be OK if it's only Passive that's involved: 'toy that is wanted most by children' (it may be the floated quantifier most that's starring this one; I dunno), 'litterbox that is/was used by a cat/cats'. Interesting question. I'd assign it to a grammar class as homework. –  John Lawler Jun 26 '12 at 1:28

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, hobo-slept doesn’t work because (in most dialects) you can’t say “I slept the bed”. But I think there are a couple of different things at work in your other examples. In the first set, the noun part of the compound modifier is pretty much required in order to make sense of the sentence:

This is a built home. (Built by whom?)

Our newspaper is run. (Run by whom?)

The beaches were littered with soaked birds. (Soaked with what? Water?)

Whereas in your other examples, the subject can be assumed:

This is a used litterbox. (Used by a cat.)

This is the most wanted toy. (Wanted by anyone.)

But for those cases where there is a common assumed subject, you can change it explicitly:

This isn’t just a used litterbox—it’s a human-used one!

As far as I can think of, that’s only done for effect. It’s no wonder, then, that child-wanted sounds a bit odd when you aren’t deliberately contrasting it with, for instance, another kind of person doing the wanting. I would say the general rule is this: if the subject part is not required, then it can only be included for emphasis.

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This answer seems really sensible to me - thank you! I'm going to leave the question open for a bit longer to see if anything else interesting comes up, but I think this is a very good explanation. –  alcas Jun 26 '12 at 1:50

A couple of differences occur to me:

  • in e.g. student-run, expert-administered etc, there's a notion that the agents act together as a group; this isn't the case in !child-wanted toy, !parent-bequeathed house etc;
  • possibly related, another difference is that in the cases where the compound is readily used, it seems to be the case that the recipient isn't one of the arguments of the verb.

Or maybe put more simply, the construction works better when there's a notion of "altruism".

However, these are really just the differences that occur to me off the top of my head-- I'm also sure it's more complicated than this.

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That sounds right, too, and so does Jon's. There are probably more, though, since there are a lot of possible clauses to contract from, and all sorts of special cases to idiomatize. –  John Lawler Jun 26 '12 at 4:33

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