Compound words

A compound word is a word that is made from two other words put together, for example, “lumber” plus “yard” = “lumberyard”. English has thousands of compound nouns, but there are also some compound adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Here are a few examples:

  • Adjective: childlike, postwar, secondhand, lifelike, monthlong, citywide, overanxious
  • Adverb: henceforth, anyway, overall, nonetheless (3 words!)
  • Verb: freelance, proofread, upgrade

Pronouncing compound words

The important thing to know about pronuncing compound words, is that you should follow the pronunciation and spelling patterns of the individual words. You should not try to apply spelling patterns to the whole compound word together. Here are some examples of errors that could happen if you try to say a compound as a single word rather than two words together:

Silent final -e
An [-e] at the ends of words is silent, but a silent [-e] can be found in the middle of a word, if it is part of a compound. For example “hedgehog” is the two words “hedge” plus “hog”. The [-e] at the end of “hedge” is still a silent final [-e]. So you should NOT say “hed-ge-hog”!

Y as a consonant
When the letter “Y” is in front of a vowel, it is a consonant. However, in a compound word such as “layout”, the “Y” is not a consonant, it is just part of the vowel of the first word “lay”. You should NOT say “la-yout”!

False digraphs
Normally, when the letters “T” and “H” are together, they work as a pair (diagraph) to represent the /th/ sound. However, in the middle of a compound such as “foothold”, it might look like there is a “TH”, but it is not. You should say “foot-hold” and NOT say “foo-thold”.

So, you need to keep your eye open for compound words, in order to pronounce them correctly. There are some compounds that are hyphenated (written with a dash mark), such as “mass-produced”, and those are easy to see, but a compound that is written as one word could trick your eyes.

There are only just a few compounds that have a pronunciation which is a little bit different from the original two words, such as “vineyard” and “breakfast”.

Don’t let your eyes be tricked — be on the lookout for compound words, and remember to use the spelling and pronunciation patterns of the individual words.


Compound Nouns Part 3

Compound Nouns Part 1 explained that compound nouns are stressed on the first word. However, for names and titles, the stress pattern is different. For proper names or official titles, the last word is the stronger word.

For example, if I say the name “Mary Jane”, the 2nd part (Jane) is stronger, but if I add her surname, then the stress moves to the last name “Mary Jane Smith”. This is also true for place names, for example, “New York” is stressed on the second part, but “New York City” is stressed on the the 3rd part.

Here are some more examples:
2 part titles: attorney general / assistant professor / vice president / notary public / mayor-elect
2 part people or business names: John Smith / George Washington / Queen Elizabeth / General Motors / Children’s Hospital / Home Depot
2 part place names: Los Angeles / St. Paul / South Dakota / Long Island / Tenth Avenue / Maple Lane / Eastern Boulevard / Lake Superior / Mississippi River / Paris, France / Houston, Texas
3-part names: Yellowstone National Park / Thief River Falls / Vice President Johnson / First Baptist Church / Mall of America

Names which use the words “street” or “store” actually use regular compound noun stress, which means that the first part is stronger: Sixth Street / Oak Street / Jackson Street / Wall Street / General Store / Target Stores.

Be on the lookout for compound nouns, you are likely to find them any time you hear or read something in English! (These are the ones I used to write this blog post: stress pattern / last name / place names / lookout / blog post.)

Compound Nouns Part 2

Compound Nouns Part 1 explained that compound nouns should be stressed on the first word. Part 2 explains how incorrect stress can sometimes change the meaning of what you are saying.

Sometimes, if you put the stress on the second word of a compound noun rather than the first word, it changes from a compound noun to an adjective-plus-noun phrase, and it has a different meaning. Here are some examples:

  • shortcake vs. short cake: a “shortcake” is a specific type of cake, but a “short cake” could be any type of cake that is not tall.
  • silverfish vs. silver fish: a “silverfish” is a kind of insect, but a “silver fish” is a fish that is silver colored.
  • blacktop vs. black top: “blacktop” is a certain kind of road surface, but a “black top” could be any lid or cover that is black in color.
  • briefcase vs. brief case: a “briefcase” is used by businessmen to carry their papers, but a “brief case” means a situation or example that is not very long.

Here’s a fun example I recently heard — it makes use of both a compound noun and the corresponding adjective-noun phrase. In a commercial for the movie “Despicable Me” the announcer says: “Just because he’s a bad guy, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” Can you hear which one (bad guy) is the compound?

Most of the time, if you do not say a compound noun with proper stress, it probably won’t cause a terrible misunderstanding, but it can definitely slow down the conversation. For example, if you are talking about a “network” but you pronounce it as “netWORK”, a native speaker of English will probably pause a second to think about what you just said, and then realize that you were trying to say “network”.

So, it is best to learn to say compound nouns with the correct stress pattern. A final note: even though the name of a person or a place is a noun grammatically, names with two or more parts, such as “New York”, do not follow the stress pattern of compound nouns. This is covered in Compound Nouns Part 3.

Compound Nouns Part 1

A compound word is two words put together to make a new word. In English there are thousands of compound nouns, so it is good to know a few basic things about them.

Compound noun spelling

The first thing to know is that some compound nouns are written with one word (closed compounds), such as “sunset”, and some are written with two separate words (open compounds), such as “sun tan”. There are also a few that are hyphenated, which means they are connected with a dash mark, such as “sun-belt”.

Here are a few more examples:
Closed compound nouns: network, snowfall, notebook, offspring, fishbowl, laptop, nonsense.
Open compound nouns: apple tree, ski pole, music stand, graph paper, chalk board, rush hour, turtle shell.
Hyphenated compound nouns: get-together, check-in, in-laws, close-up.

By the way, these sometimes change over time — some words that are written as an open compound today, might be written as a single word in 10 years from now. Also, some are spelled more than one way, such as half-sister / half sister, or even all three ways, such as lifestyle / life-style / life style.

What that means, is that you can not always recognize a compound noun just by seeing it. However, you can identify a compound noun by listening to the stress.

Compound noun stress

The stress pattern of compound nouns is staightforward — the first word has stronger stress. This is true whether the compound noun is closed or open. In fact, the stress pattern makes open compounds sound like one word, even though they are spelled as two words.

Listen to the stress of these compound nouns — they all have the same stress pattern. In fact, if you listen with your eyes closed, you might not know which ones are open or closed: daylight, coat room, bookworm, yard sale, pathway, oil change, volleyball, flower bed, chestnut, light year.


There are some words that really seem like they should be a compound noun, but they are not, such as: “iced tea”, “apple pie” (all types of pie), and “fast food”. So the best strategy is to use regular compound noun stress when you think that it is a compound, but always be ready to switch the stress if it seems like there is some misunderstanding. So for example, if you go to a restaurant and ask for “LEMON pie” but they don’t know what you are saying, then swtich the stress and say it again “lemon PIE”.

Compound nouns are everywhere – keep your eye open for them, or rather, your ear open for them.

Chicken or Egg? Phrasal Verbs & Compound Nouns

Many phrasal verbs have a similar looking compound noun. For example, the phrasal verb “take off”, which means “to depart”, corresponds to the noun “takeoff”, which means “departure”.

Here they are in sentences:
The plane could not take off until the snow was cleared.
Why was the takeoff delayed so long?

Phrasal verbs are distinguished from compound nouns by the stress. The stress of phrasal verbs is on the 2nd part, but compound nouns are stressed on the 1st part. Listen to the stress in the these examples:

turn out
This new cake recipe did not turn out very well.
Voter turnout is expected to be high for the next election.

work out
They went to the gym to work out.
The fitness instructor started them on a new workout.

drive through
Let’s drive through so we don’t have to get out of the car.
The drive-through is open even if the dining room is closed.
(Note: this noun is often spelled “drive thru” –it’s easier to put on a sign that way)

break down
The car broke down again? We really need to get a new one.
There was a breakdown in communications after they discovered the new evidence.

break through
I hope the sun breaks through the clouds soon – it’s been raining all week.
There have been many medical breakthroughs in the last 50 years.

knock out
The storm knocked out the electricity in the whole town.
The boxer won by a knockout in the first round.

carry on
We will have to carry on the best we can even without his help.
How many carry-ons does this airline allow?

call back
Will you please ask John to call me back when he arrives?
They promised a callback to let us know when it’s ready.

turn over
Let’s turn this project over to someone with more experience.
That job has a lot of turnover – most workers don’t stay more than a year.

give away
They are going to give prizes away at the grand opening.
Then they will have a giveaway of gift cards next month.

You may have noticed that in some of these examples the phrasal verb and the compound noun have similar meanings, while others do not. In reality, each of these nouns and verbs have several meanings. One other thing to know is that not every phrasal verb has a corresponding compound noun.

So, that leads us to the chicken-or-the-egg question: which came first, the phrasal verbs or the compound nouns? I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess it’s the phrasal verbs. Either way, new phrasal verbs and new compound nouns are being invented in English all the time. So keep your eyes open for them, and remember to be careful with the stress.

(There are many websites for learning English that have lists of phrasal verbs, but the best resource that I have found is The Macmillan Dictionary. The definitions and examples seem to be very thorough.)