I somehow ended up in a small argument about the first part of the compound word "fingerprint". The other person insists that the first word "finger" is an adjective, which I cannot agree with. "Fingerprint" is a noun-noun compound word, but my counterpart argues that "finger" is used adjectivally to describe what kind of a "print" it is. I would not say that everything that specifies something or describes something is an adjective. That would just be simplifying some elementary school heuristics for parts of speech...

Now, there certainly are some words that are both nouns and adjectives, such as "cotton", but I doubt "finger" would be one of those.

So, is "finger" in the word "fingerprint" a noun or an adjective? "Fingerprint" is a noun-noun compound anyway. Prove me wrong, maybe I'll learn something.

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    Morphemes don't have word classes, words have word classes... so the question doesn't really make much sense. It's just a compound. Nov 4, 2014 at 6:48
  • "Morphemes don't have word classes, words have word classes" it just goes to show that, very rarely, you see something on the internet that isn't ridiculous.
    – Fattie
    Nov 4, 2014 at 7:24
  • What's the difference between fingernail and toenail? Aren't finger and toe modifying nail? Maybe the both of you can flex and get the right answer between your positions. Nov 4, 2014 at 7:29
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    @medica "Decomposing fingernail and toenail" would sound very gruesome :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2014 at 9:06
  • Ultimately what it means is a print that is distinguished as being that of a finger. That should leave on in no doubt that print is the noun qualified by finger -- nouns are used adjectivally, so that a word that is a noun in its standalone avatar is an adjective when used as such. Both of you are right, so smile!
    – Kris
    Nov 4, 2014 at 10:07

4 Answers 4



fingerprint (n.) Look up fingerprint at Dictionary.com 1834, from finger (n.) + print (n.). Proposed as a means of identification from c.1892. Admissibility as evidence as valid proof of guilt in murder trials in U.S. upheld in 1912. From 1905 as a verb. Related: Fingerprinted; fingerprinting.

Noun-noun compound word fingerprint

The conversion of a noun-noun compound into a verb (e.g. the noun-noun compound fingerprint becomes the verb fingerprinting, as in fingerprinting a felon) Edit:

Just because a noun modifies another noun doesn't make it just an adjective all of the sudden. It remains being a noun that works as an adjective but it's neither of them exclusively. To answer your question whether finger works as an adjective or as a noun in the word fingerprint, I'd say neither of them. Since it's a noun with the function of an adjective but it's not specifically either of them. Or just like Mari-Lou A commented, an adjunct noun if you'd like to give it a name.

  • Please look at adjunct and solid compound nouns. The question is far more complicated.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2014 at 7:03
  • Precisely because of compound nouns is that fingerprint is the combination of two nouns, just like the word football is. Foot doesn't become an adjective when combined with ball. Nov 4, 2014 at 7:08
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    adjunct noun "a noun adjunct or attributive noun or noun (pre)modifier [OR adjectival noun] is an optional noun that modifies another noun; it is a noun functioning as an adjective." And solid compound words
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2014 at 7:11
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    english.stackexchange.com/questions/146828/… Perhaps this will help. Finger remains a noun, the word fingerprint as a whole doesn't need finger to be an adjective for it to be a compound noun. Not necessarily. Nov 4, 2014 at 7:11
  • The OP asked if the word fingerprint was a noun-noun compound word. Just because a noun modifies another noun doesn't make it just an adjective all of the sudden. It remains being a noun that works as an adjective but it's neither of them exclusively. Nov 4, 2014 at 7:39

You are absolutely right in saying "not everything that describes something is an adjective".

The finger part is not even "functioning like an adjective", which seems to be a rather popular weasel wording (and not just on this page). It cannot be used attributively, it has no comparative, and I'm forgetting at least one other thing right now. A fast car is fast, and a beautiful woman is beautiful, but a finger print is not finger. You can have a faster car and see a more beautiful woman, but you won't find a more fingerprint or a fingerer print. It is not an adjective, is not functioning like an adjective, and has nothing to do with adjectives at all.

The current lingo would be noun adjunct or attributive noun. I say "current" because part-of-speech definitions are not set in stone and keep changing every couple decades. If you ask five people you will get six different wordings, and frankly, nobody prevents your friend from just making one up on the spot. They actually can make the definition be "everything that describes something is an adjective", and have it include verbs for all we care, because verbs describe things, too. In "I ate a giant sandwich", the ate describes what I did to the sandwich, and in swimsuit the swim describes the suit.

The elephant in the room is that it's really irrelevant what they call it. It's just a label that doesn't miraculously change anything about how the language actually works. The finger in fingerprint will still be different from the black in blackboard, the swim in swimsuit, the parking in parking lot, the well in well-being, or the off and on in offset and onset. So if they want to account for that, they'll have to invent subclasses for their "adjectives", putting them right back to square one.

  • What about the expression "finger-licking good"? Doesn't that describe food as being tasty? You could make it into a comparative: It's more finger-licking good (No?)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2014 at 10:48
  • @Mari-LouA "good" is an adjective, and "more" modifies it, so nothing unusual here. If you are wondering about the suppletion, it is missing for the exact same reason the plural of Mickey Mouse is Mickey Mouses: regularization. But I am actually not quite sure what it is you are wondering about.
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 4, 2014 at 11:08
  • Just that finger in that expression forms part of the "adjective", albeit composed of three separate three items. Is there a term for this type of "adjective", I don't know. I've always heard that nouns that act like adjectives are so, because they follow similar patterns. For example, finger foods You don't pluralize the first noun in the compound, *fingers food. Just thinking aloud, I know I'm not a linguist. BTW nobody here has said finger in fingerprint is an adjective.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2014 at 11:15
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    @Mari and I didn't say anybody did say that. I said that people use weasel wording instead that is even worse — "functioning like an adjective", "a noun with the function of an adjective", "functions as an adjective". This page is chock-full of that. Basically we're not answering OP's question but repeating it right back at him. As to your example, adjectives can be compounds themselves, and even entire phrases of twenty words with hyphens between them. But that deserves a separate question, and is indeed completely orthogonal to the one at hand.
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 4, 2014 at 11:29
  • @RegDwigнt Quite right. The other thing you're after is nouns aren't pre-modifiable by adverbs: a [very phone] box. All adjectives are modifiable by some adverb or other. Generally, the term attributive noun refers to a noun that can only be used attributively, in other words it has a restricted distribution, and can't carry out functions such as being a Predicative Complement. It's not really a word category. Adjunct on the other hand is a type of function. Noun adjunct is an adjunct that's a noun. It isn't a category of Noun. Like NP subject, just a subject that's a noun phrase ... Nov 4, 2014 at 18:57

The dictionary definition cited by Jerson Zuleta tell us that the word fingerprint was originally formed by the combination of the words finger and print used in their noun functions. However, this combination, once formed, became a new noun. Within that noun, we might see the finger part as functioning like an adjective, distinguishing fingerprint from, for example, thumbprint, but it is not itself an adjective.

  • Quite right. Here, 'finger' is an attributive noun that functions as an adjective describing the noun 'print'. In effect, it becomes a noun/adjective hybrid.
    – Erik Kowal
    Nov 4, 2014 at 7:57

I don't like the use of "adjective " as word class and also as attribute. I think that is not precise grammar terminology and is confusion of grammar terms.

In "a woman teacher" the noun woman is often called an adjective as it modifies teacher. Here "adjective" is used as attribute, any subelement modifying a noun. I think one should clearly distinguish between word class and function of a word. And in my view "woman" remains a noun, even if it is used as attribute.

Obviously this imprecise use of the term adjective has been recognized and new terms beside attribute have been created: combining form or combining element. I use subelement for anything that is attributed to the main word of a word group. In any case, I don't say a relative clause is an adjective.

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