I was told in some websites the the difference between attributive nouns nouns and compound nouns is by looking in any dictionary if there is two noun "like: Cricket ball / apple pie" in a dictionary then it is a compound, if it's not then you have an attributive noun

If this is true,then we have a lot of attributive N become to compound nouns

Any idea about this??

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    Neither of your examples are 'compound nouns'. They are syntactic constructions, i.e. noun phrases consisting of the nouns "ball" and "pie", and the attributive modifiers "cricket" and "apple", both nouns. Compounds by contrast are single words, formed morphologically of two smaller bases. Compare the syntactic constructions "green house" and "black bird" with the morphological compounds "greenhouse" and "blackbird".
    – BillJ
    Jul 7, 2018 at 14:25
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    "Washing-machine" (a machine for washing clothes) and "swimming-pool" (a pool for swimming in) are best treated as compounds. The same applies to "frying-pan", "living-room", "walking-stick" and so on.
    – BillJ
    Jul 7, 2018 at 15:06
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    There is an intermediate step between a phrase that happens to be formed of two nouns and a compound noun. When two nouns are used together so frequently that people think of them as a single semantic unit, then the vocal stress migrates from the second noun to the first one. Compare "cricket Sunday" to "cricket bat". The first phrase is easily understood, but not frequently used, so the main noun is stressed. The second one is so frequently used that people think of it as a single concept and the attributive noun is stressed. Jul 7, 2018 at 15:55
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    i am very grateful for your help..finally I think I got it>> Like as you said swimming pool (a pool for swimming in) this is a compound.//but swimming competition (this is syntactic constructions)> the same as apple tree.. apple pie ..etc
    – bande
    Jul 7, 2018 at 15:59
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    @BillJ - Sure, but I still think there's an intermediate stage, though I don't know what its linguistic term is. Consider "apple pie," "fruit pie," and "meatpie," where I've indicated the typical stress with bolding. Both "apple pie" and "fruit pie" are two nouns in a noun phrase, but in the latter case, the first noun is stressed because English-speakers have come to think of it as a single semantic unit. Jul 8, 2018 at 1:27

1 Answer 1


The key difference between a compound word and a noun used attributively is whether the meaning can be understood from the meanings of the individual words alone.

For example an "egg roll" is a type of Chinese food, with pork, cabbage, ginger (etc) in a wrap and deep fried (egg is not usually an ingredient). Could this be understood from any of the meanings of "egg" and "roll"? I'd say "no", so "egg roll" is a compound noun.

On the other hand "apple pie" is a pie filled with apples. If I knew what "apple" and "pie" mean, I think I could understand the meaning of "apple pie". So this is a noun being used attributively.

A dictionary would need an entry for "egg roll", but it might choose not to have an entry for "apple pie".

There is overlap: Compound words started as ordinary combinations of words, and then the meaning became more specialised. At one time, a "black bird" could be any bird that was black. Later it came to have a specific meaning, and the spelling changed to "blackbird".

All this means for a learner you have to learn that some combinations of words have a specific meaning that can't be guessed from the meanings of the words themselves. Fortunately the meanings are often related and so easy to learn. Many noun+noun compounds are written without a space, so are easy to spot.

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