MED Magazine - Issue 42 - September 2006
|Your questions answered
|When a noun is used as a
noun modifier, does it still count as a noun? In an exercise
involving identifying and counting nouns, is floor covering
one modified noun or two nouns? How about feline quadruped?
It is a feature of English nouns that they
can be placed before another noun, and there is no hard and
fast distinction between a noun and a noun modifier, nor indeed
between a noun with a noun modifier and a compound noun. In
some cases it seems clear to everyone that a unit is a compound
noun, while in others the edges are fuzzy, especially when
the combination is open rather than hyphenated or closed.
If you look at the Macmillan English Dictionary (MED),
you will see that floor show and floor lamp,
for example, are given their own place as compound noun headwords,
but floor covering isn’t.
In fact, none of the dictionaries I have looked
at gives floor covering as a compound, so I’d be inclined
to say it is a noun – covering – modified by another
noun – floor. But there is no absolute reason why floor
covering shouldn’t be regarded as a compound noun: it
is reasonably frequent, and it can be pluralized and can be
the subject or object of a sentence. You could say any of
I like the new floor covering.
Fashions in floor coverings change frequently.
The present floor covering will make the rest of the
building took tatty.
So it’s really up to you whether you want
to call it one (compound) noun or two nouns, with one of them
behaving as a modifier.
Some nouns are used so frequently as modifiers
that they are actually classified as adjectives: for example,
in MED, family is classed both as a noun and an adjective.
Feline quadruped comes into this category, because
although feline is a noun (Lions are felines)
it is also classified by most dictionaries (including MED)
as an adjective too. So I’d say that what you have here is
a noun modified by an adjective, rather than two nouns.
You can see why lexicographers spend a lot
of time debating whether to classify a particular item as
a noun or an adjective, or whether a particular combination
qualifies as a compound noun or is just one noun premodified
Is the following sentence
The storm came so unexpected that we didn't have enough time
to make any preparation.
Most people would regard The storm came
so unexpected … as incorrect, because unexpected
is an adjective, whereas what is needed here is an adverb:
The storm came so unexpectedly … It would be
correct to say The storm was so unexpected …
because a few verbs like be, feel, look
and seem are followed by an adjective rather than an
People do use adjectives when strictly speaking
an adverb is required, especially in informal speech. Some
common adjectives have been used so frequently in this way
that they are now classified as adverbs as well, though they
are often labelled as ‘spoken’ or ‘informal’. So you can say
Don’t talk so loud or He walks too quick
– both of these words are classed as both adjective and adverb
in the Macmillan English Dictionary and other learners’
dictionaries. The fact that they are regarded as informal
means that you should probably avoid using them in careful
There are two other minor changes that I would
make to the sentence: I would add on after came,
to make it more idiomatic, and I would make preparations
plural (you could also say we didn’t have time to prepare
word or two
I was wondering if the word
fountainside is one word or two words? I have been
arguing with someone about this.
As you probably know, there are no hard and
fast rules governing when a compound noun stops being two
words and decides to become one (sometimes going through a
hyphenated phase along the way). Over the centuries many nouns
have fused with other nouns so firmly that we no longer think
of them as two. Good examples here are words like seaside,
riverside, and lakeside, all of which are now
generally written as one word. Indeed, there are hundreds
of citations for the closed forms of these words in the corpus
on which the Macmillan English Dictionary is based,
and hardly any for the open forms.
Fountainside does not strike us as
a natural combination in the way that those other words do
simply because it’s not that frequent – we often talk and
write about being beside a river, a lake or the sea, but not
often about being beside a fountain. There are no citations
at all in the corpus for either fountainside or fountain
side, but if you do a search on Google you will find roughly
50,000 for the closed form and 15,000 for the open form. (Not
all of these are relevant, of course, but it gives an idea.)
So I’d say you are justified in writing it either closed or
open as you choose. It’s probably not worth arguing about,
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