Can we use compound nouns as adjectives? What can we say about the compound nouns below, aren't they defining the subjects?

1. Jack the Ripper suspect
2. Snowman drawing book
3. Fruit-fly trap

  • I have no idea who or what a "Fruitfly Reed" is, so I changed it to trap, which makes sense. As for "Snowman Charles", anyone's guess is good!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 22, 2016 at 13:48
  • Charles is Name Sep 22, 2016 at 16:31
  • Yes, but who is "Snowman Charles"? Where did you find this name?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 22, 2016 at 16:32
  • Actually I made it up:) Sep 22, 2016 at 16:32

2 Answers 2


A word or phrase with this specific function (comes before and modifies a noun) is said to be attributive. Attributive adjectives are the most familiar type of attributive words, but in English, nouns can also be used attributively.

And in general, if you can use a single word in a construction in English, you can also use a phrase. It's perfectly acceptable to use a noun phrase attributively, as in "Jack the Ripper suspects."

Often, people will say that these nouns are being "used as adjectives." However, as JavaLatte says, this is not a very accurate description because adjectives (or adjective phrases) generally have many other properties that nouns don't have.

  1. Adjectives normally can be used predicatively with the same meaning as when they are used attributively. The phrase "red houses" normally means the same thing as "houses that are red." Note that a predicate adjective is not inflected for plurality, and it doesn't have to be accompanied by any articles.

    In contrast, attributive nouns often don't mean the same thing as predicative nouns. The phrase "fruit-fly traps" does not mean the same thing as "traps that are fruit-flies." Note also that predicate noun phrases have to take the inflections and articles that correspond to their number and definiteness: it would be ungrammatical to say "*traps that are fruit-fly."

  2. Adjectives normally can be used in comparative and superlative constructions ("The reddest houses"). Attributive nouns cannot (we can't say "the fruit-fly-est traps" or "the most fruit-fly traps").

There are various other methods for distinguishing nouns and adjectives; these are just the main ones that I remember.

  • I understood @Java and you perfectly and thanks for the answers so shortly the referred name is attributive noun or noun conjuct.And if modify a compund noun with a compund noun as Java exampled still the name is attributive noun group or phrase right? Sep 22, 2016 at 16:35
  • @aintnosunshinewhenyouaregone: I haven't heard these called "noun conjuncts." I have heard the term "noun adjunct." If a noun phrase is used as a modifier, I would call it an "attributive noun phrase."
    – sumelic
    Sep 22, 2016 at 16:50

In a compound noun, the first noun modifies the next noun, in the same way that an adjective would.

A sign-> A white sign- white is an adjective
A sign -> A safety sign- safety is the modifying noun in a compound noun.

You can modify a compound noun using a further noun

A safety sign -> a road safety sign - road is the modifying noun

You can also modify a noun using a compound noun

A fitter -> a safety sign fitter - safety sign is a modifying compound noun

You can even modify a compound noun with a compound noun:

A sign fitter -> a road safety sign fitter - road safety is a modifying compound noun

It is true that a noun or a compound noun can modify a noun in the same way as an adjective can, but it would be unwise to say that you can "use compound nouns like adjectives".

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