What Are Compound Nouns? Definition, Examples, & More

Compound nouns and words are essential parts of any English speaker’s toolbox. The sentence you just read even contains an example of one (hint: the last word). However, we often take compound nouns for granted because they are so commonplace (I did it again!). So, what are compound nouns and why do we need them? Moreover, if they’re so common, what are some examples of compound nouns? Finally, are these terms meant to be used as a single word, separate words, or two words connected by a hyphen?

We will answer all of these questions and more, but first, let’s provide a proper definition of the term:

Compound Noun Definition

A compound noun is a noun that is made up of two words that, if separated, could stand on their own. When two distinct words are combined to form a noun, they take on a new meaning that may or may not be related to either of the original words. For example, “ice cream” is a compound noun. Both words — ice (frozen water) and cream (a dairy product made from skimming fat from the top of milk) — have their own distinct definitions, but when combined, they turn into a delicious, frozen treat! As a result, compound nouns are an essential part of the English language.

It’s also important to note that compound words are not specific to nouns. There are also compound verbs — like “ask for” and “kickstart” — as well as compound adjectives like “good-looking” and “old-fashioned.” There are even compound adverbs, like “therefore” and “very well.” 

However, you can’t just put any combination of words together to form a compound word. There’s no such thing as a “class flush” or “lobster banana.” That said, there are literally thousands of examples of compound words throughout the English language!

Compound Nouns List

It would be impossible to list all of the compound nouns that exist in this article. However, we can list some common and useful examples to help you expand your vocabulary! So, here are some examples of compound nouns organized by category:

Common Nouns

As you can imagine, common compound nouns are frequently used to refer to different people, places, and things. When referring to human beings, these terms often categorize a person or people by occupation, family member status, or more general groups. Here are a few examples:

Person

  • Businessperson
  • Flight attendant
  • Firefighter
  • Brother-in-law
  • Everyone
  • Everybody

Place

  • Everywhere
  • Nowhere
  • Anywhere
  • Seashore
  • Cornfield
  • Bus stop

Thing

  • Armchair
  • Cupboard
  • Skateboard
  • Football
  • Sunglasses
  • Homework

Proper Nouns

Classifying proper nouns as compound nouns is a little tricky, as each word or word-part may not have a definition of its own. For example, “Ben Affleck” is a compound noun, as it combines a first name (Ben) with a last name (Affleck) to form a full name that many people will recognize as the famous actor. However, names usually don’t have inherent meanings, other than just being names. In any case, combining two names for people, places, or things results in a compound proper noun.

Person

  • William Shakespeare
  • Barack Obama
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Cristiano Ronaldo
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Oprah Winfrey

Place

  • Florida Keys
  • Eiffel Tower
  • New York
  • Atlantic City
  • United States
  • New Zealand

Thing

  • Berlin Wall
  • Burger King
  • Roman Catholic
  • Coca-Cola
  • Labor Day
  • Sunday

Abstract Nouns

Finally, there are hundreds of abstract compound nouns in English. These are compound words that you cannot observe with your five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, or sound). Here are a few examples:

  • Lifespan
  • Self-confidence
  • Common sense
  • Birthday
  • Freelance
  • Run-in

One word, two words, or hyphenated — which is correct?

Thus far, you’ve probably noticed that compound nouns come in three different forms. Sometimes compounds are two words combined to make one noun (closed compounds). Other times they are two words that remain separated by a space but still work together to create a noun (open compounds). Finally, you can have two words connected by a hyphen to form a new term (hyphenated compounds). So, which is the correct way of writing a compound noun?

The truth is that they are all correct — depending on the words and the context. Let’s look at a few principles that should help you know when to hyphenate compound nouns, when to use two words separated by a space, and when to use just one word:

  • Most compound proper nouns are formed by two words separated by a space, though there are exceptions (Sunday, Thanksgiving, etc).
  • If a compound begins with “self,” you almost always use a hyphen (self-reliance, self-defeat, etc).
  • Using a hyphen between an adjective and a noun can change the term from a compound noun to a compound adjective.

General Rules for Compound Nouns

To help you further, let’s look at the general rules for different parts of speech combinations:

First Word Second Word Type of Compound Noun Examples
Noun Noun Closed or Open lifeguard, travel agent, moonlight
Adjective Noun Closed or Open empty space, greenhouse, low tide 
Preposition Noun Closed overbite, insignificance, bystander
Verb Noun Closed or Open washing machine, breakfast, passport
Noun Verb Closed butterfly, windfall, haircut
Verb Preposition Hyphenated check-in, build-up, follow-up
Adjective Verb Hyphenated dry-cleaning, well-being, merry-go-round
Preposition Verb Closed output, input, overdraft

As you can see from the table above, many of the most common compounds can be opened or closed. This means you’ll simply have to memorize the correct form for each word. However, when prepositions or verbs are involved, things get a little easier. For example, when an -ing verb precedes a noun, the resulting compound word is almost always open. When a preposition follows a verb or a verb follows an adjective, you almost always create hyphenated compound nouns. Finally, if a verb follows a preposition, the resulting compound will usually be closed.

It’s also important to remember that many common compound nouns can be either open or closed. Even with combinations that are almost always closed, open, or hyphenated (as indicated in the table above), you’re bound to find a few exceptions. Since the rules are not always clear, many people choose which form they wish to use and just stick with it. For example, some people write “seat belt” (open compound), while others write “seatbelt” (closed compound). Though most dictionaries use the open compound, the closed version is widely accepted. This holds true for many other compounds as well.

Examples of Compound Nouns in Sentences

Now that you know some different compound nouns, it’s time to learn how to use them! Here are a few examples using all of the different parts of speech combinations:

Noun + Noun

  • I asked the waiter to put some ice cubes in my drink.
  • Everybody has to wear their seat belt in my car. 
  • The neighborhood gets bigger and bigger every year.

Adjective + Noun

  • He says that real estate is a stable investment.
  • You should take the highway; it’s much faster.
  • I want my hot dog with extra mustard.

Preposition + Noun

  • My son needed braces to correct his underbite.
  • I’m starting to make inroads with my boss.
  • His indetermination held the entire team back.

Verb + Noun

  • The family gathered in the living room to watch television.
  • The models started walking down the runway to thunderous applause.
  • We believe the president has the staying power to make it through the next election.

Noun + Verb

  • The rainfall was heavy that day.
  • I needed to use eardrops to cure my dog’s ear infection.
  • The acrobat did ten backflips in a row!

Verb + Preposition

  • The sit-in helped draw attention to the issue of civil rights.
  • I got good news from the follow-up with my doctor.
  • The gang members did a drive-by before leaving the scene of the crime.

Adjective + Verb

  • Her well-wishes didn’t feel genuine.
  • He was supposed to pick up his dry-cleaning yesterday, but he forgot.
  • His well-being was my top priority.

Preposition + Verb

  • They provided an overview of the new plan.
  • Buying a house is a huge undertaking.
  • The generator’s output was too low to keep the power on.

Conclusion

Compound nouns are just two words that work to form a new word or phrase. At first glance, they are pretty easy to understand. However, they can get complicated when you’re writing them down, as you’ll have to figure out whether to use open, closed, or hyphenated compounds. Fortunately, the rules are relatively lax (especially in informal writing), so don’t be afraid to make a mistake! Over time, you’ll learn the correct ways to write hundreds of different compound nouns in English!

We hope you found this guide useful! If you’d like to hear a native English speaker using compound nouns in everyday conversations, be sure to subscribe to the Magoosh Youtube channel or join our Facebook Group today!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer and former English teacher. He enjoys traveling the world, watching movies, and caring for his three toy poodles.
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