How to Teach Compound Nouns

By Alex Case
How to present noun + noun, adjective + noun, etc, including dealing with common learner issues with compound nouns

A lesson on compound nouns like “head teacher” and “bookcase” can be a great way of expanding students’ vocabulary. However, such a lesson can bring up lots of complications of grammar, punctuation and pronunciation that this article should help you prepare for.

What students need to know about compound nouns

Compound nouns are made of two words but act exactly like a single noun, as the subject of a sentence, with adjectives, etc. For example, “blackboard” is made from “black” and “board” but acts as a single word, and “police officer” looks like two words but is actually one thing.

As with these two examples, the most common kinds of compound nouns are made from a noun + a noun (“dishwasher”) or an adjective + a noun (“whiteboard”). However, there are other fairly common possibilities such as ones with adverbs/ prepositions and/ or verbs like “overtime” and “takeover”.

Although compound nouns have the meaning and grammatical properties of a single word, some of them are written as two words (“birthday party”) or as two words with a hyphen (“close-up”) Although this is mainly convention and can vary over time and even from dictionary to dictionary, the general patterns are that short and/ or very common compound nouns are often written as one word with no gap (but with many exceptions like “ice cream”). Long and/ or less common compound nouns are usually written as two words. Compound nouns with a hyphen are sometimes somewhere between those two extremes like “dry-cleaning”, but are often made from particular parts of speech such as multiword verbs (“check-in”).

The plurals of most compound nouns are formed from changing the second of the two parts, as in “longboards” (as with adjective plus noun combinations which are not compound nouns like “new boards”). However, there are exceptions like “sisters-in-law” and “passers-by”. In such cases, it is generally the word which carries the most important part of the meaning which is made plural, but there are exceptions.

Compound nouns tend to be stressed more strongly on the part derived from the first of the two words, as in BASEball. This is perhaps to distinguish them from similar combinations which are not compound nouns and so are stressed equally on both of the content words. For example, a BLACKbird is a specific species of bird and therefore a compound noun, whereas a BLACK BIRD is just any bird which is black such as a crow.

Typical student problems with compound nouns

With students who are just starting with compound nouns, I have found that the most common mistake is using a plural noun at the beginning, as in “teethbrush” X. This is understandable, as a “cherries tree” X has more than one cherry, but can be explained by saying that the first noun is acting like an adjective and so, like any English adjective, doesn’t take the plural form. This usually works, as students are likely to know that “reds bags” X is wrong.

The other main problems with compound nouns like not knowing if there should be a hyphen or not knowing plurals are also shared by native speakers, so students should be taught how to look up the correct versions.

How to present compound nouns

Even students who have never had a lesson on compound nouns should have no problems using examples like “firefighters” and “runner-up” as single words. You can start with a communicative activity such as ranking their importance if you make a list of suitable compound nouns to illustrate the points above that you want to present which share one topic like travel or human resources. Students can then analyse the words for their grammar, pronunciation, etc.

How to practise compound nouns

This is dealt with in the article 10 Fun Compound Noun Activities.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET May 2024
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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