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I cannot tell the difference regarding definition between compound nouns and nouns preceded by an adjective. For example:

River pollution is a serious environmental issue.

River pollution is a serious environment issue.

or

What is the molecular structure of water?

what is the molecule structure of water?

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    Actually, they aren't compound nouns. They are noun phrases with a noun adjunct modifying the head. But for difference in meaning, you may need native speakers to explain. – user178049 Mar 9 '17 at 2:26
  • There aren't any nouns followed by adjectives in your examples, although there are many set phrases in English which do take that form, like professor emeritus, fee simple, or time immemorial. And as user178049 notes, I don't see any compound nouns, either; I might suggest schoolteacher or movie star. – choster Mar 9 '17 at 2:56
  • I believe the OP meant to say "...nouns preceded by an adjective" – Stephen C Mar 9 '17 at 3:13
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River pollution is a serious environmental issue.

River pollution is a serious environment issue.

These are not compound nouns, but syntactic constructions where the noun "issue" is modified by the noun "environment" and the adjective "environmental". The resultant nominals are in turn modified by the adjective "serious" to form the noun phrase "a serious environment(al) issue.

What is the molecular structure of water?

What is the molecule structure of water?

Similarly with this pair: the noun "structure" is modified by the adjective "molecular" or the noun "molecule" to form the noun phrases "molecular structure" and "molecule structure".

By contrast, compounds, or more precisely "morphological compounds" are written as single words such as "newspaper", "cowshed", "pillow-case", "life-guard", "chewing-gum", "pub-crawl", "record-player" and so on.

Note that compounds exclude modification of the first component, for example "a dark greenhouse" means a greenhouse that is dark", not a greenhouse that is painted dark green. Composites on the other hand can allow a wide range of modification, for example "a bright green car" is a car that is painted bright green.

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    Is there any difference in meaning between 'environment issue' and 'environmental issue'? – Little Straw purple Mar 10 '17 at 0:39
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    @LittleStrawpurple No, but the adjective "environmental" would be the more natural and common choice. Same with your other example, the adjective "molecular" is much preferred. – BillJ Mar 10 '17 at 7:54
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I'm a native speaker (USA) and I can say that very few people would be able to recognize the difference in meaning in these two examples. Let's take the first example,

River pollution is a serious environmental issue.
River pollution is a serious environment issue.

Only the first sentence makes sense. In the first sentence,the adjective, "serious," modifies the noun phrase, "environmental issue." In the second sentence, the adjective only modifies "environment." The two sentences might be reworded,

One serious environmental issue is river polution
"One issue for the serious environment is river pollution."

Again, only someone we lovingly refer to as a "grammar nerd" would recognize the error, though it is important to get it correct.

  • If 'serious' was omitted, would it make any difference in meaning of the 2 sentences? Just the meaning, not grammar. – Little Straw purple Mar 9 '17 at 14:20
  • It would affect the meaning a little. The "serious" is there for emphasis. Some people would argue that any environmental issue is serious, but the author wants to stress the importance of the issue. – Stephen C Mar 9 '17 at 17:52

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