According to https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/compile, compile is just a verb, which means it cannot be used as an adjective or a noun.

So, grammatically speaking, at compile time is not a correct phrase. However, in computing/programming, at compile time is the de facto stardard.

How to explain such a grammar phenomenon?

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    'Compile time' is a set phrase, perhaps even a compound noun, like 'stop button' and 'growbag'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 at 14:21
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    "Which means it cannot be used as an adjective or a noun" is not really a true premise. Check out "conversion" or what is commonly called the "nouning of verbs" and "verbing of nouns" or "creative redeployment." – Yorik Jan 2 at 17:07
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    Similarly with "at run time". The phrases "compiling time" and "running time" are more usually applied to the length of time they take, similar to the "running time" of a movie. – Weather Vane Jan 2 at 19:57
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    Because programmers don't like to waste bytes. – Hot Licks Jan 2 at 23:13
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    @HotLicks - it's not just programmers. English speakers hate to waste syllables. It's stress-timed so we're always deleting them whenever it doesn't cause confusion, which turns out to be pretty much all the time, especially in special speech situations where shorter is faster is clearer is better. – John Lawler Jan 2 at 23:27

First, this is the English language, and therefore pretty much any lexical word can be used as pretty much any open-category part of speech (in English, that's noun, adjective, adverb, and verb; occasional closed-category POS like subordinate conjunction or preposition are also possible).

Consequently, what part of speech a word is used as in English (though not in many other languages, where inflection is important) is NOT determined by dictionaries, which are authoritative only on written meanings and occasionally on standard pronunciation. The grammatical information they provide is rarely useful, because they deal with individual words and not constructions, except for the more popular idioms.

Second, that means the conclusion drawn, viz

  • Compile is just a verb, which means it cannot be used as an adjective or a noun.

is false.

Third, the conclusion then drawn, viz

  • Grammatically speaking, at compile time is not a correct phrase.

is also false, because this is not "grammatically speaking". This is a dictionary, not a grammar. A grammar of English does not tell you what's "correct", anyway; official correctness is merely trying to talk like the upper classes so nobody can tell you're not upperclass yourself.

Fourth, the observation

  • However, in computing/programming, at compile time is the de facto standard.

is correct. There is no however, however. This observation is all that is needed. The previous parts were all false, coming from the entirely too common, and totally false, presuppositions that:

  • Grammar is a set of "rules", which somebody knows and will tell you
  • Parts of speech are set by rule, and cannot change
  • If you break one of the rules, the result is "an incorrect phrase"

In fact, idioms like this happen all the time and become fixed phrases, coming together until they're glued together like today or become or always. Compile time, encode time, decode time, most verbs that can refer to an activity that takes time and occurs in sequence can become fixed phrases in this construction.

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    Time and time again. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 2 at 19:57
  • @John Lawler: from Wikipedia 'Recently, efforts have begun to update grammar instruction in primary and secondary education. The primary focus has been to prevent the use of outdated prescriptive rules in favor of laying down norms based on prior descriptive research and to change perceptions about relative 'correctness' of prescribed standard forms in comparison to non-standard dialects.' First: Rules are dead. Long live norms! Second: I wonder if people will gladly use correct non-standard forms in letters of application and the like. – Ben A. Jan 3 at 14:11
  • Good luck with that. The problem is that there are vastly more non-native speakers teaching the English they have learned in schools than there are teachers who actually understand the grammar and don't use the old terminology. It will never die and we will see it in questions here until the heat death of the English universe. – John Lawler Jan 3 at 17:45
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    Let me add a third: If grammar ceases to be prescriptive it will lose relevance for 'common' people and will enter the ivory tower - warmly welcomed by philosophy. Is that what grammar scholars want? – Ben A. Jan 6 at 14:50
  • Of course not. But it's not up to us, any more than the U.S. economy is up to bank clerks. – John Lawler Jan 6 at 16:05

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