My students were asked, in an exercise in their published workbook (in which there are sometimes mistakes), to identify the noun or nouns in a sentence within a passage about carrier pigeons being used for scientific research. The book said that "Each bird carried a GPS satellite tracking receiver on its back."(Punctuation as written: i.e. no commas.) The answer book identified 'GPS', 'satellite' and 'receiver' as separate nouns within the sentence.

I am confused. To me, 'GPS', 'satellite' and 'tracking' could be regarded as adjectives describing the only noun in the sentence, being 'receiver'. Either that or all four words could be forming a compound noun: the name of the object in question is a 'GPS satellite tracking receiver', rather like a 'bedside table' being one physical object but with two words to describe it.

I am sure that the answer book is wrong and that these are not separate nouns, but I am unclear whether there are three adjectives and a single word noun in this sentence, or whether there is a four-word compound noun and no adjectives.

  • GPS satellite tracking seems to be a commonly used open phrase, even though it doesn't appear in any actual dictionary. When used in front of receiver, the three-word phrase is acting as an adjective to modify the noun receiver. Think of ice cream sandwich. Although it's arguably used as a three-word noun, it's really an open two-word acting-adjective that modifies the noun sandwich. (Like corn beef sandwich.) It would not be "wrong" to punctuate your phrase as GPS-satellite-tracking receiver. But some open phrases are so "familiar" that they are not hyphenated. – Jason Bassford May 20 '18 at 5:51
  • Thank you, Jason. Your thinking aligns with my first thoughts on this one. (Another teacher at my workplace disagreed with me, leading me to wonder.) Thanks again. – Brenda May 20 '18 at 6:50
  • It's important to distinguish syntactic constructions and morphological compounds. As separate words, "GPS" and "satellite" are nouns, and "tracking" is a verb, each modifying the noun "receiver" -- so the NP "GPS satellite tracking receiver" is a syntactic construction. But if, for e.g. we hyphenate "satellite-tracking", it becomes a single word, a morphological compound, i.e. a verb-centred compound adj comprising noun+verb, so though still a syntactic construction, "GPS satellite-tracking receiver", has "receiver" as head +the noun "GPS" + the compound adj "satellite-tracking" as modifiers. – BillJ May 20 '18 at 8:47
  • Thanks for the response, Bill. There were no hyphens or commas in the sentence. I don't understand what a syntactical construction is and suspect it falls within the realm of linguistics. The children are in primary school and so would not understand this either. – Brenda May 20 '18 at 16:31
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    The difference is that a syntactic construction is typically two words where the first modifies the second, e.g. "green house", "black bird", "red skin" while a compound is a single word, e.g. "greenhouse", "blackbird" and "redskin". – BillJ May 20 '18 at 17:07

In the noun phrase a GPS satellite tracking receiver, the words GPS, satellite and receiver are nouns and tracking is a present participle. The head noun is receiver, and all other nouns and the participle function as adjectives. A noun functioning as an adjective is grammatically termed as Attributive Noun or Noun Adjunct

attributive noun (plural attributive nouns)

(grammar) A noun that modifies another noun attributively and that is optional (that is, it can be removed without affecting the grammar of the sentence); a noun used as an adjective. For example, in the compound noun "chicken soup", the attributive noun "chicken" modifies the noun "soup". (Wiktionary)

Theses attributive nouns can be written as open compounds (separately), hyphenated compounds or closed compounds (as single words). There’s no rule governing which become single words and which stay two.

When one noun clearly functions as an adjective modifying another noun, no hyphen is needed. However, when the two nouns are in equal standing, use a hyphen—for example, city-state, poet-novelist, closet-bathroom. (Grammarist)

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    Thanks for the replies. If the words 'GPS' and 'satellite' are attributive nouns, what is the participle 'tracking'? – Brenda May 20 '18 at 16:25
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    @Brenda Tracking is a present participle (verbal adjective) functioning as an adjective. – mahmud koya May 20 '18 at 16:30
  • So I have two noun adjuncts and a verbal adjective. Thanks all. – Brenda May 20 '18 at 16:35

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