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Phrase-based compounds

A characteristic feature of nominal compounds is that the non-head can also be phrasal (even clausal) in nature (Hoeksema 1984). The following compounds illustrate this generalization:

[[A N](NP) N](N)
a. blotevrouwenblad
nude women magazine
b. heteluchtballon
hot air balloon
[[Q N](NP) N](N)
a. drielandenpunt
three-countries point, where three countries meet
b. vierkleurendruk
four-colour printing
a. lach-of-ik-schiet-humor
[lach of ik schiet](S)-humour
laugh-or-I-shoot humour
b. God-is-dood-theologie
God is dead theology

The phrasal status of the AN sequences in the non-head position is shown by the facts of inflection: the adjectives end in schwa and are therefore inflected, which is only possible within phrases. In addition, these word sequences have the stress patterns of phrases (main stress on the last word), not of compounds, which have main stress on the first constituent. For instance, in heteluchtballon the main stress of the constituent hete lucht is on lucht, as is expected if this constituent is a phrase.  

[+]Phrase-based compounds with NPs

A compound-internal phrasal constituent can only occur in non-head position: if a phrase occurred in the head position, the whole expression would be a phrase, and hence not a compound. Compounding with NPs is a productive pattern and is not restricted to lexicalized NPs. However, not all kinds of NPs can function as compound constituents. It is only the combination of a bare adjective or quantifier with a bare noun that is allowed. Compounds in which one of the constituents of the NP is modified, are impossible, as shown in (4):

*een [heel blote vrouwen]blad
a very nude women magazine
*[vier donkere kleuren]druk
four-dark-colour print
*een [de oude mannen]huis
a the old men's home

This means that it is the morphological module that defines which kind of NPs can occur within compounds. The reasons for this restriction might be at least partially semantic. For instance, the embedded NP cannot be a referring expression, because parts of words cannot have independent reference. Hence, we do not find determiners in compound-internal NPs (though we do find them in clauses embedded in compounds such as ban-de-bom-beweging ban-the-bomb-movement).

A consequence of the possibility of NPs occurring within words is that we find plural nouns within compounds. Examples are the following:

a. dakenzee
sea of roofs
b. huizenrij
row of houses
c. vakkenpakket
subjects chosen for graduation

In these examples the head nouns refer to a kind of container or a mass, and thus the use of plural nouns in the non-head position is quite natural.

There are also a number of nominal compounds whose left-hand constituent consists of an NP with a PP-complement:

a. huis-aan-huis-blad
door-to-door magazine
b. mond-op-mond-beademing
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
c. nek-aan-nek-race
neck-and-neck race

The nouns involved in such constructions are usually identical. The NPs function as adverbial modifiers.

[+]Phrase-based compounds with other phrase types

In addition to NPs, we also find PPs, APs (bare adjectives followed by a complement) and sentences within compounds, sometimes in the form of imperative sentences. Examples are:

a. onderwatercamera
[onder water](PP)-camera
underwater camera
b. buitenboordmotor
[buiten boord](PP)-motor
outboard engine
c. ver-van-mijn-bed-show
far from my bed show
d. blij-dat-ik-rij-campagne
glad that I drive campaign
e. ban-de-bom-demonstratie
ban-the-bomb demonstration
f. blijf-van-mijn-lijf-huis
women's refuge centre
g. doe-het-zelf-winkel
do-it-yourself shop
h. God-is-dood-theologie
God is dead theology
i. de wie-heeft-het-gedaan-vraag
de [wie-heeft-het-gedaan]S -vraag
the whodunit question

A second type of phrases within compounds consists of conjoined phrases: Ns, Vs, and As can be conjoined, with or without a conjunction, as left-hand constituents of compounds:

a. peper-en-zoutstel
salt and pepper set
b. huis-tuin-en-keukenvoorbeeld
common or garden example
a. kijk-en-luistergeld
radio/tv licence fee
b. gooi- en smijtfilm
[gooi- en smijt]film
slapstick film

Asyndetic coordination, that is coordination without an overt conjunction, is found in the left-hand constituents of nominal compounds:

Coordination of nouns
a. Holland-Amerikalijn
Holland-America line
b. maag-darmkanaal
gastro-intestinal tract
c. moeder-kind-relatie
mother-child relation
Coordination of verbs
a. slaap-waakritme
sleep-wake rhythm
b. woon-werkverkeer
commuter traffic
c. zit-slaapkamer
Coordination of adjectives
a. los-vastrelatie
informal relationship


Word sequences occurring in the left-hand position of nominal compounds are not always syntactic phrases. There are AN, QN, and NV sequences as left constituents of nominal compounds that lack phrasal properties such as inflection of the prenominal adjective:

a. blauwbuiksalamander
blue belly salamander
b. breedbandantenne
broadband aerial
c. groothoeklens
wide-angle lens
a. tweepersoonsbed
double bed
b. tweerichtingsverkeer
two-way traffic
c. vierkamerflat
four-room apartment
d. eengezinswoning
one family house
a. aardappelschrapmachine
potato scraper
b. brandblusinstallatie
fire extinguisher
c. koffiezetapparaat
coffee maker

The AN sequences in these compounds cannot be NPs because there is no inflection on the adjective. For instance, the non-neuter noun buik belly would require the inflected form blauwe if the noun were head of an NP. In the case of QN sequences, the quantifiers twee two and higher require a plural head noun in an NP. As to the NV sequences, the verbs have the stem form, and hence are not inflected words, as would be the case if they were heads of a verbal phrase. Note also that we find the stem-extension (linking element) -s that is characteristic of nominal stems: NPs do not have linking elements. Semantically, the first two words do form a unit: they function together as a modifier of the head.


The theoretical implication of the possibility of phrase-based compounds is that the word formation component of a grammar cannot be qualified as pre-syntactic, since syntactic rules such as adjective-noun agreement must be allowed to apply within these compounds. Therefore, our conception of the grammar has to be a modular one, with the modules unordered: the morphological module defines the set of well-formed words, and the syntactic module defines the set of well-formed phrases and sentences. It is the morphological module that states that the left-hand constituent of nominal compounds can consist of certain types of phrases, to which the rules of the syntactic module apply (Booij 2002).

  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
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