Compound Nouns (7 of 10): Hey, I’m a compound noun!


One of the aspects of the Chinese language which I really like is the way it creates nouns by combining two simple nouns. These are called ‘compound nouns’. For example, in Chinese, the animal in the above picture is called a ‘long-neck-deer’ (‘chong-jin-lu’). Okay, ‘long’ is an adjective, but it makes the noun ‘long-neck’, which is added to ‘deer’. Hence, a compound noun. But in English, it’s just called a ‘giraffe’.

However, English also has many compound nouns, but the rules abut when to use hyphens (‘-‘) and whether to write them as one or two words are confusing. For example, why is screwdriver one word, but word processor two? In the previous post, I began discussing this, and let’s continue this discussion now.

Sometimes the way we write the compound noun is just about the look of the noun. Parking meter looks good, but parkingmeter just looks wrong (and is wrong). Timetable is one word, but what about car park or carpark? I prefer the second – it looks fine, but many dictionaries prefer the first.

What about seatbelt or seat belt or seat-belt? The dictionaries give the middle one, but they all look fine to me, and are often given as ‘secondary’ spellings.

These rules can vary from country to country (e.g. USA versus the UK), and generation (e.g. old people versus young people).

The conclusion is, don’t worry too much about these. As long as the message is clear, it is fine – even in IELTS Writing. IELTS examiners are trained to judge the ‘communicative efficiency’ of the writing – that is, whether any mistakes make the writing harder to understand, or not. There are terms in the public version of the IELTS Band Descriptors which show this, such as mistakes  ‘do not impede/reduce communication’ or mistakes ’cause some difficulty/strain’.

The good news is that whether you use a hyphen or not in a compound noun, the word/meaning/message is still very clear – that is, if it is a mistake (according to some dictionary), this has no effect on communication. Seatbelt or seat belt or seat-belt  are all fine, and probably the IELTS examiner will not be sure which is ‘correct’. So, don’t worry too much, but try to follow what the dictionaries say.

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