Syntactic and Semantic Features of English Compounds

Modern English Word Formation and Phraseology

Term Paper 2004 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. General characteristics of compounds
2.1. Definition
2.2 Compounds vs. syntactic groups
2.2.1. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to meaning
2.2.2. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to syntactic structure / sequence of elements
2.2.3. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to stress
2.2.4. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to spelling
2.3. Compounds vs. derivations
2.4. Types of compounds

3. Frequency of compounds in newspaper articles and other texts

4. Pilot study of newspaper articles from different genres with regard to the semantic types of compounds in the texts

5. Conclusion (Evaluation of the frequency analysis)

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

Compounding is a very productive word formation process. Productivity is “one of the defining features of human language which allows a native speaker to produce a large number of words and sentences according to the rules of a generative grammar” (Bauer 1991:84).

In the English language there exists a vast number of words which were produced by compounding.

In my term paper I am going to explain in detail what we understand by the term compound. I am going to look at semantic and syntactic characteristics and how compounds can be distinguished from syntagms which look very similar to them.

In the further progress of my manuscript I am going to make a pilot study of the frequency of compounds in newspaper articles from different genres. I give answer to the question which genre seems to favour the use of compounds and which not. Of course my study is not going to be sufficient enough to present generally accepted results but after it prospects can be estimated.

2. General characteristics of compounds

2.1. Definition

We speak of a compound, when two or more simple or complex word stems are combined into a morphological unit. Consequently a compound consists of more than one base (e.g. letter-box, fingertip, term paper). The bases of a compound function both grammatically and semantically as a single word.

English “compounds usually comprise two bases only” but “in principle, any number of bases may be involved” (Quirk 1990:1567). But this is a minor class of items.

A compound is composed of a determining and a determined part. “The determinant (Modifier) generally precedes the determinatum (Head)” (Marchand 1960:11). The determinatum is the grammatically dominant part which is determined by the first word of the compound (e.g. bedroom, computer freak, daylight). This means that the prototype of a compound generally reports on something which is a special case or a subordinated amount of the head. If we take the example small talk, it is obvious that this is a special kind of talk. And a blackbird is a special kind of bird.

It is not possible to form a compound “by placing any lexical item in front of another” (Quirk 1990:1568). The relation between the items brought together in compounding must be reasonable. For instance it is not reasonable to form table glass from the sentence ‘She puts the glass on the table’.

2.2 Compounds vs. syntactic groups

Compounds look very similar to syntactic groups. Here only three examples:

syntactic group compound

a dark room a darkroom

a green fly a greenfly

a black bird a blackbird

To some extent it is difficult to distinguish compounds from syntactic groups. But there are four criteria which can be used to make a distinction between compounds and syntagms. These are the meaning, the syntactic structure or sequence of elements, the stress and the spelling. These are semantic and formal criteria and each one of them has to be considered because one alone is not sufficient to make a distinction.

2.2.1. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to meaning

One criterion to differentiate between compounds and syntactic groups is the meaning. If one looks at the compound dancing-girl and the syntagm a dancing girl, one can establish two different meanings. The compound does not mean (in contrast to the syntactic group) a girl who is dancing at the moment but a female person whose job it is to dance.

Another example for dissimilar meanings are the compound glass-case and the syntagm

a glass case. The compound means a ‘case for glass’ but the syntactic group means a ‘case made of glass’. It is important to consider these unlike meanings because otherwise it may lead to misunderstandings.

Beneath syntagms, compounds are also often confused with phraseologisms. These are idiomatic and lexicalised word groups that have a similar form like compounds. But again the meaning helps to distinguish between phraseologisms and compounds. The examples of darkroom and a dark horse demonstrate that very clearly. The compound darkroom means a room without daylight which is used for photographic processing. But the phraseologism

a dark horse does not mean a horse which is brown or black. A dark horse stands for an outsider (German: Außenseiter, unbeschriebenes Blatt).

2.2.2. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to syntactic structure / sequence of elements

Many compounds have a special order or combination of their constituents that syntactic groups are not allowed to have. For instance the compound meat-eating has a different syntactic structure than the syntagm eating meat. It is the same case for sightseeing and seeing the sights or hard-boiled and boiled hard (Hansen 1982:51).

Furthermore it is not possible to separate compounds. If we have the word group a cold darkroom, we cannot split the compound (darkroom) and constitute *a dark, cold room or

*a dark and cold room because these two new formations do not have the meaning of the origin word group anymore but a completely different meaning.

2.2.3. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to stress

There is another contrast between syntactic groups and compounds because they have different stresses. Syntagms have secondary stress but almost all compounds have initial (primary) stress, whether they are nouns, adjectives or verbs. This means that compounds have stress on the first base.

syntactic group compounds

illustration not visible in this excerpt

There are some exceptions like the compounds , ash- ´ blonde and , bottle- ´ green. The focus is on blonde and green“since the premodifiers merely denote degrees or shades” (Quirk 1990: 1569). It is similar with ‘combining-form’ compounds like , socio-eco ´ nomic or ‘coordinate’ compounds like , Swedish-A ´ merican because they also do not have initial stress.

Another exception are compounds like , mental ´ hospital or , animal ´ hospital. When a noun can also be interpreted as an adjective, a change of the stress pattern may occur. Although hospitals cannot be mental or animal, we use secondary stress.

2.2.4. Difference between compounds and syntagms according to spelling

The orthography of compounds varies in many words and some may even occur in three different forms like a flower pot (‘solid’ form), a flower-pot (‘hyphenated’ form) and

a flowerpot (‘open’ form). So the spelling is not a dependable criterion for the distinction between compounds and syntactic groups. If one looks at a sentence like ‘ We saw a dancing girl ’ one cannot say if dancing girl is a compound or a syntagm just by using the criterion of the orthography.



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syntactic semantic features english compounds modern word formation phraseology



Title: Syntactic and Semantic Features of English Compounds