Other types of compounds

The capacity for creativity in the making-up of compounds is a wonderful feature of English, one inscribed in its identity as a Germanic language, and one of the ways in which this creativity is shown is the fact that virtually any word, or even any stretch of language, can be used attributively and turned into a compound. Just think, for instance, of the relatively recent compound it girl in the following sentence:

(265) sound_loud_speaker Paris Hilton is the ultimate it girl [1].

Here the compound is made up of the semantically void pronoun it and a noun. Despite its emptiness, the first element carries the stress.

In (266) the first term of the compound is an adverb:

(266) sound_loud_speaker And you know that the meanwhile part was taking place at the same time (Margaret Atwood; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada).

Obviously there isn’t anything resembling “the meanwhile part” registered as an established compound in any dictionary. The speaker has just made it up and gave it the correct accentual pattern. Of course, the meaning offers no room for doubt.

In both (267) and (268) the first element is a noun phrase.

(267) sound_loud_speaker The one comparable film then is the Harry Potter movie (Andrew Pulver; London, UK).

(268) sound_loud_speaker Why not try downloading the In our Time podcast (Laurie Taylor; Liverpool, UK).

Now let’s have a look at the following excerpt from an article written by the comedian David Mitchell and notice the compound it ends with. This is written communication, so for it to achieve the desired effect it is essential that the reader gets the stress right in his or her mind.

(269) Our phones reassure us because they make us feel connected – because if your mobile is turned on, in range and not ringing, it probably means that no work crisis has developed and no disaster has befallen a close friend or loved one. It’s a constant everyone-in-your-life-is-more-or-less-ok monitor (David Mitchell, The Guardian).

This is what, for want of a better word, we could call a “clause-noun compound”. The clause is used attributively and I would venture that the accent goes on the last lexical word of it while the second element –that is, the noun– is deaccented.

(270) sound_loud_speaker It’s a constant everyone-in-your-life-is-more-or-less-ok monitor.

Actually this kind of structure is quite common in casual speech or writing and we have natural examples that seem to bear out the accentuation proposed earlier. It is worth noticing how absolutely English this resource is and how unlike Spanish.

(271) sound_loud_speaker There was one of those famous waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night episodes (Andrew O’Hagan; Glasgow, Scotland).

(272) sound_loud_speaker My son specializes in man-walks-into-a-bar jokes (Laurie Taylor; Liverpool, UK).


In (272) the nucleus of the final IP falls on bar (186,1 hz), the last word of the clause that constitutes the first part of the compound. Then the frequency falls to 132.9 in jokes.

[1] The expression comes from the film It, released in 1927, featuring Clara Bow, but its actual meaning became widespread in the nineties.


Previous Next