What is the difference between compounds and phrases? How do I know that "watch-maker" is a compound but "steel bridge" is a phrase? Does the "head" have anything to do with it (complement-head or attributive-head)?

  • Good question (though your bridge-building skills need improving). Modern dictionaries usually list open compounds (solid ones and hyphenated ones are almost always classed as 'words' – though there is even a debate over whether 'phrases' includes single words). There are grey areas. Feb 13 '15 at 17:48

First, terminology needs to be defined. Here, 'word' (orthographic word) and 'phrase' (meaningfully constructed string not containing finite verb and consisting of two or more words) are used:

Giegerich argues extensively that

steel bridge and watch-maker are unequivocally phrasal and lexical respectively.

[ie a phrase and a (compound) word respectively]

The analysis really boils down to 'is XY better considered/treated as a coherent unit or as a closely-related pair of units?'

He adds

Establishing [these] two prototypes will facilitate a more informed subsequent discussion of the less clear-cut and possibly borderline cases ...

He spends pages attempting to establish the truth of his assertions. And it's a difficult process. And these are not two of 'the less clear-cut and possibly borderline cases'.

I feel entitled to quote his 'Linguists continue to argue' slightly out of context.

My advice is not to worry too much about when a string has graduated from free combination (ie 'casual acquaintance') to strong collocation to open compound. Use them the way most people do, and be aware that the analysis is very tricky and open to dispute.

  • 1
    Linguists usually use the terms in specific contexts, like noun phrase or compound preposition. In general terms, there is no principled universal distinction between the words themselves; they mean the same thing -- a non-clausal constituent consisting of several words -- but perhaps with an implication of more complex subordination relations in a phrase than in a compound. Definitions come after the usage is determined. Feb 13 '15 at 18:25

Telling the difference between a compound noun and a modified noun is not straightforward, but one way that often works is to consider the stress. A modified noun has primary stress at the end, while a compound noun has stress at the beginning. There are exceptions, but it works for your examples, using 2 to mark secondary stress and 1 for primary stress: "2steel 1bridge" (the modified noun), "1watch 2maker" (the compound).

  • This is the previous thread you mentioned. I'd repeat "The analysis really boils down to 'is XY better considered/treated as a coherent unit or as a closely-related pair of units?' " With 'the Cromwell business / that business with Cromwell', I'd argue from semantic considerations that the string is noun + modifier (with determiner). 'Cromwellian business' is not unknown. Nov 2 '16 at 0:41
  • @EdwinAshworth, I have of course already agreed (in the future) that the first noun of a compound noun can have the sense of an adjective.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 2 '16 at 1:11
  • But I'd say (whenever) that a compound noun's 'components' have to most intents and purposes lost their individual sense. Nov 2 '16 at 1:20
  • @EdwinAshworth, Why would you say that? What is the connection between whether the parts of a word have senses that are regular and whether it's first part is a modifier? I don't see any connection at all.
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 2 '16 at 4:47
  • In 'a black bird', the adjective is obviously modifying the noun. But claiming that the first part of 'blackbird' is still modifying the second involves the etymological fallacy: some blackbirds are brown. A new lexeme has been created, not identical in meaning with its 'constituent parts'. Compounds are not mixtures. Nov 2 '16 at 10:57

When you use the term compound you refer to word formation. Both "watchmaker" and " "steel bridge" are compound nouns as they consist of two nouns.

When you use the term phrase you describe the structure of a sentence. Here phrase is nothing else than a word group that belongs together. The subject can be a single noun such as Peter or a word group (phrase) as "my old teacher" or "the teacher who taught us Latin ...". The same is true for other sentence parts as well.

  • CDO lists 'peanut butter' (labelling the string noun) and 'steel band' and 'rope bridge' but not 'steel bridge'. Feb 13 '15 at 18:29

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