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"This has been thrown in the trash can."

In this instance, wouldn't trash be an adjective describing what type of can it is? I'm being told by a German English teacher that 'trash can' is a noun in this sentence.

There are numerous types of cans, and trash is describing what type of can it is. I'm not getting how trash is a noun in this situation.

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    Both trash and can are nouns in trash can, just like baby food and truck stop each have two nouns in them. – tchrist Sep 10 '15 at 15:22
  • What @tchrist said. If you want to adjectivally describe the [current] state of the can (as opposed to using an attributive noun to describe something more enduring, like its purpose), it would be a trashy can. It's the same as a dirt box (a pet litter tray that might never have been actually used) and a dirty box (any "non-pristine" box, whether filled with cat poo, or just a bit dusty). – FumbleFingers Sep 10 '15 at 15:38
  • @FumbleFingers Being dirt poor is an interesting case. – tchrist Sep 10 '15 at 15:50
  • @tchrist: Indeed! Does it maybe allude to US subsistence farmers in the 30s "dustbowl", who were forced to abandon their homestead (patch of dirt) and become itinerant agricultural workers? – FumbleFingers Sep 10 '15 at 15:56
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    In German Abfalleimer is a noun, and Abfall is also a noun. Why should it be different in English. But it is usual to say trash is an adjective in English, even if it is a very queer view. Trash is a noun serving as compound element or subelement of the main noun can. – rogermue Sep 10 '15 at 16:28
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In your sentence, 'trash can' is a noun phrase, just like 'big dog' is a noun phrase, even though 'big' is an adjective.

In 'trash can', 'trash' is being used in a position normally occupied by an adjective, even though it is a noun. This is an example of a noun modifying a noun, just like 'dog' in the phrase 'dog bed'.

Such nouns are called noun adjuncts or attributive nouns. This Wikipedia article might help.

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  • I'd say that most people would regard trash can as a compound noun (an open compound), as do the people at R H K Webster's. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '15 at 16:17
  • @ Edwin Ashworth, you might be right! But compound nouns (open or closed) are composed of a head noun and an attributive noun, just like less conventionalized attributive + head compounds like adult food. The wiki page I linked says "It is irrelevant whether the resulting compound noun is spelled in one or two parts. Field is a noun adjunct in both field player and fieldhouse" – GoldenGremlin Sep 10 '15 at 16:22
  • Some would include single nouns as 'noun phrases', I'll agree. But 'trash can' is not just like 'big dog'. 'Red herring' is getting nearer. And doubtless the compound noun crystallised from noun [attributive] + noun. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '15 at 16:32
  • @Edwin Ashworth, I think we're looking at this from slightly different POVs. I'm thinking just in terms of syntax. A syntactician will, I think, treat 'trash can' or 'trashcan' as composed of two lexical items (two nouns, in fact), regardless of whether or not people who make dictionaries include 'trashcan' as its own entry. – GoldenGremlin Sep 10 '15 at 16:40
  • Crystal introduced the term 'lexeme' to deal with this ambiguity. Thus 'kick the bucket' is a single lexeme when used metaphorically. However, treating alternative spellings such as 'particle board', 'particle-board' and 'particleboard' (all acceptable) as intrinsically different is not wonderful analytically. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '15 at 16:50
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We can take the noun "can" and form an unlimited number of coherent and sensible noun phrases, including: a big can, a blue can, a heavy can, an empty can, a tin can, a coffee can, an oil can, a trash can.  Just as you've surely noticed, the words big, blue, heavy, empty, tin, coffee, oil and trash all do the same job.  They all modify the noun "can".  In high school, I was taught to label all these noun-modifying words as adjectives.  If we only want to look at the work that these words do for or on the word "can", that's fine. 

But, if we want to look at the jobs that can be done for or on those words, we find that there is a significant difference.  There's at least one kind of word that can modify adjectives.  In high school, I was taught to label all of those words as adverbs.  One example of such an adverb is the word "very". 

These phrases work: a very big can, a very blue can, a very heavy can, a very empty can.  These phrases fail: a very tin can, a very coffee can, a very oil can, a very trash can.  Big, blue, heavy and empty seem to be one type of word.  Tin, coffee, oil and trash seem to be another type of word. 

There is more than one way to address this difference.  We could consider "trash can" to be just one word (a compound word) that is just one part of speech (a noun) but consider "empty can" to be a phrase with two separate words (empty and can) and two separate parts of speech (adjective and noun).  That sounds like the approach that your German English teacher takes.  Alternately, we could consider tin, coffee, oil, trash and can to all be nouns.  All of them (can included) are used to modify other nouns, and there's nothing special about the way these words combine.  Given the noun "crusher", we can talk about a can crusher as easily as a tin can, and even talk about a tin can crusher if we so wish.  I used to have a very blue tin can crusher, but I threw it in the trash can.

Whatever system of labels you prefer, it is more useful to use a system that describes both what the words can do and what can be done to them.  Labelling the "trash" of "trash can" as simply an adjective ignores the fact that "a very trash can" is not a coherent and sensible noun phrase.

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In that sentence the two words "trash" and "can" combine to form what is called a compound noun.

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