The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć HOMEPAGE



A critical examination of the account of


 in word combinations in

Cambridge Grammar of English (2006)


Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy


(The false trail of grammatical categorising 4)


Amorey Gethin





Syntax versus meaning

Confusion concerning stress

Proper names

Phrasal verb word combinations

More grammatical distractions

Meaning determines stress

Difficulties and exceptions

OXFORD Street and Edgeware ROAD





Syntax versus meaning


There is more than a hint of the Chomskyan illusion of the primacy of syntax in the Cambridge Grammar of English: a comprehensive guide (CGE). Too much of the explanation is based on grammatical categorisation. This usually leads to nothing but an extra burden on the memory, while at the same time giving a false impression of how language works. For instance (p.481), under “Compound nouns”, the authors write:


The typical (unmarked) stress pattern is with stress on the first item (e.g. screwdriver, happy hour), which helps to distinguish noun compounds from noun modifier + head structures, where stress is on the noun head (e.g. university degree, government report).


This approach is the same as that of Chomsky and Halle. I demonstrated its flaws in Gethin 1990 (pp.98-104). (references) One cannot put any piece of language into a grammatical category until one understands its meaning (consider running shoes and running nose). But once one has established meaning, grammatical categorisation serves no purpose. Unless, that is, it is considered enlightening to discover, by using  the CGE’s criteria, that Oxford Street is a compound noun, and, mysteriously, Edgware Road is a noun modifier + head structure. Quite a lot of the CGE gives the impression that its task is indeed to discover grammatical categories for the benefit of the students reading it, rather than show how to use pieces of language.




Confusion concerning stress


The CGE’s account of stress in word combinations is confused and self-contradictory. On page 320, under the heading Compound heads, it says:


Structure of compound nouns

Compound nouns consist of a noun head with another item (most typically a noun, but it may also be an adjective or verb) placed before it in a very close syntactic and semantic relationship. The initial item most typically identifies a type of the class of entities denoted by the final noun. For example, a video shop is a type of shop; orange juice is a type of juice:


video shop                                                            window box                                                    blackboard


orange juice                                                          sports centre                                                 grindstone


petrol station                                                        greyhound


The elements in compounds are closely bound to each other syntactically and cannot normally be interrupted by other elements (e.g. a motorway petrol station, not a petrol motorway station). Compounds are therefore best considered as single heads in the noun phrase. Their typical stress pattern is with stress on the first item (petrol station, blackboard, grindstone).


Compound nouns and noun modifiers

The borderline between compound nouns and noun phrases acting as premodifiers of noun heads is not always clear. However, the preferred stress pattern for compounds, with stress on the first item, is usually an indication that the nouns are considered as an ‘institutionalised’ unit (stressed items in bold):


car park                                                               bus stop                                                       safety helmet


The noun modifier construction has the stress on the noun head:


a fur coat                                                                                     that government report


several volunteer helpers                                                               bathroom door


Meaning of compound nouns

The compound noun structure is extremely varied in the types of meaning relations it can indicate. It can be used to indicate what someone does (language teacher), what something is for (waste-paper basket, grindstone), what the qualities of something are (whiteboard), how something works (immersion heater), when something happens (night frost), where something is(doormat), what something is made of (woodpile), and so on.



The CGE says that in ‘compound nouns’ “the initial item most typically identifies a type of the class of entities denoted by the final noun. For example, a video shop is a type of shop; orange juice is a type of juice”. But what the CGE distinguishes separately as ‘noun modifiers + head structures’ also identify “types of the class of entities denoted by the final noun”: a fur coat is a type of coat; a government report is a type of report; volunteer helpers are a type of helper; a bathroom door is a type of door.


Much of what the CGE says under the “meaning of compound nouns” is incorrect.

The quality (above) of something is expressed by the first element of a word combination with the stress on the final element, not on the first:


deep structure                                  open debate                          classic example


The white in whiteboard does not express quality, nor really even colour. If we wanted to talk about a board we intended to put up and paint white, we would talk about a white board – stress on board. Whiteboard is a good example of what the CGE describes well as an ‘institutionalised’ unit. The origin of the name of the species blackbird was no doubt the fact that it is black. But the female blackbird is not black; it’s brown. But it’s still a blackbird. On the other hand, ravens are black birds. There are many such ‘institutionalised’ units in English; the first, stressed, element is frequently a colour, and such word combinations are very common as the names of bird species:


bluestocking                                     greenhorn                              blue tit


greenfinch                              redstart                                 yellowhammer


Where something is, is expressed by stress on the final element, not on the first:


sitting room sofa                     kitchen table                          top floor flat          


factory gate                                              front entrance                        backdoor


A doormat is a mat for the door, in the same way as a kitchen knife is a knife for use in the kitchen.                     


What something is made of is expressed by the first element of combinations with the stress on the final element, not the first. If we want to talk about something made of wood, we talk about:


a wood frame                                   wooden box                            pine box


One of the CGE’s own examples, fur coat (above), illustrates the principle. A woodpile (a pile of wood) is not made of wood in the same sense that a wood frame is. Nor is an iron mine (a mine for the purpose of mining iron) made of iron in the same sense that iron filings are (an iron mine is made of all sorts of different things). Further examples:


gold ring                                                     plastic bag                                     cotton shirt                                brass handle



And – this a fundamental point – it is not compound nouns that have (or do not have) these meanings. Certain meanings are expressed by one stress pattern; other meanings are expressed by another stress pattern.




Proper names


The CGE continues:


Proper names

Compound nouns are common in proper names and titles. Most typically, these have the stress on the final noun:


Narita Airport                                                                                                         Headteacher


New York City Hall                                                                                               Ronald Bickerton


The London Underground                                                 Mary Prosser


Prime Minister



Here the CGE is contradicting what it has just stated on the same page (see above 1, 2 and 3, and what it states on page 481). According to these statements, all seven of these last examples are noun modifier constructions, not compounds. But it is not because these examples are either compounds or noun modifier constructions that the stress is on the final element, but because the first element describes or identifies the final element. London in The London Underground identifies which underground we are talking about, and Mary in Mary Prosser says what sort of Prosser we are talking about – the Mary sort.



Phrasal verb word combinations


On page 321 the CGE gives


Examples of compound nouns formed from phrasal verbs:


runner-up                  passer-by          take-over


stand-by                   lay-by


But runner-up and passer-by (unlike the other three) have stress on the final element, so according to the CGE’s criteria they are noun modifier constructions, not compounds. Actually, we here again have a stress pattern determined by meaning. Runner-up and passer-by are both people who do things as indicated by the suffix –er. I cannot think of many other examples of this sort of combination that are standard usage. Hanger-on is one. But one can invent one’s own – for example: He’s a great unexpected turner-up. (Though many native English-speakers would probably say turner-upper or turn-upper.)




More grammatical distractions


Following the first passage quoted from the CGE (p.481 above) there are sections I find very peculiar:


There is a wide range of possible semantic relationships between the pre-head item and the head. These include:


subject + verb: headache (head that aches), rainfall (rain that falls)


verb + subject: warning sign (sign that warns)


verb + object: know-all (a person who thinks they know all), killjoy (‘kills joy’, someone who spoils the enjoyment of others)


object + verb: carpet-shampoo (shampoos carpets), risk-taking (takes risks), hair-dryer (dries hair)


predicative complement + subject: junk food (the food is junk), girlfriend


prepositional complement: raincoat (the coat is for rain), ashtray


complement + noun: chairleg, fingertip (the tip of the finger)



The authors define these “semantic relationships” as if they were a series of objective grammatical absolutes. In fact they are purely subjective attempts to describe those relationships in grammatical terminology. Far from helping students, they can only be a useless extra intellectual burden. A headache could just as well be (more accurately in fact) described as noun + verb + object – an ache that afflicts the head; rainfall could be complement + noun – a fall of rain; carpet-shampoo is prepositional complement – the shampoo is for carpets; a raincoat is object + verb – repels rain; and so on.


The CGE continues in the next section (still on page 481) with the same sort of grammatical analysis of Compound adjectives. Eighteen examples are given, but in the following list the stress markings  have been added by me. The CGE’s authors make no comment on the variation in the stress patterns (the combinations in the (a) group below have the stress on the first element; those in the (b) group have it on the final element):



air-sick                        heart-breaking                  white-washed                English-speaking               confidence-boosting


heart-broken                paper-thin                        fat-free                        user-friendly           right-angled



short-sighted               home-made               top-heavy                    royal-blue                               light-green


bitter-sweet                     left-handed




Meaning determines stress


It is surely clear that stress patterns have nothing to do with grammatical categories, but are determined by meaning. However, as usual, it is impossible to describe precisely the types of meaning involved – words are very bad describers of words. But to sum up what the discussion above indicates, I suggest the following practical rule of thumb:


stress is on the final element when the first element(s) describes or identifies the final element:


fur coat                              upper class                            John Smith                         headteacher           centre half             


(In kitchen window and kitchen table, kitchen identifies the window and the table.)


and on the first element(s) when that indicates the purpose, function, goal or target of the final element - what the final element is ‘for’ – ; where the final element is part of the first; or where somebody or something does something to something:


raincoat              shower hose language course      shirt sleeves  head-hunter                         


(kitchen knife says what the knife is for.)




Difficulties and exceptions


These principles do not appear to always be applied consistently. There are several apparent inconsistencies in my own usage. I cannot explain why I say


evening dress, but evening class         town planning, but defence spending   


Foreign Secretary, but Foreign office             trade union, but a railway union


university professor, but university student


And while the ‘describing’ principle explains the stress pattern in all the examples under (b) in the Compound adjective section quoted above, I cannot explain the stress pattern in all the examples under (a).


I think one key factor that explains discrepancies is the subjective way we experience meanings. This subjectivity causes variations in the usage of one and the same individual, as well as variation between different individuals. It may also lead to changes in usage from one generation to another, or variation between different regions of the English-speaking world. I have always said weekend, but I seem to have noticed more and more people saying weekend. Furthermore, all meanings have to be fitted into one or other of just two patterns. There are bound to be inconsistencies when there are several subtle variations of meaning to be dealt with. What one might call the ‘subjective meaning’ principle offers an explanation of inconsistencies that can never be explained by a rigid syntax-based criterion.




OXFORD Street and Edgware ROAD


Finally, the Oxford Street and Edgware Road conundrum. It is in fact an excellent illustration of the unique meaning of every word. Street and road do not mean at all the same thing. Imagine that we are driving along in a car and need to turn off onto another road. We might have a conversation like this:


“I think we have to turn left here, don’t we?” “No, no, not here. That’s the Edgware road.”


In other words, it is the road that leads to Edgware. The ‘purpose’ or function of the road is to take us to Edgware. We therefore have to stress the first element. The road might or might not be called Edgware Road.


On the other hand, consider a statement like the following:


“The historian H. A. L. Fisher was knocked down and killed by a bus on an Oxford street.”


Oxford describes, or identifies, street, so we stress street. But the street was not called Oxford Streetthere is no Oxford Street in Oxford, although there is an Oxford Road. [Before he died, Fisher was able to insist that the accident was entirely his own fault; the driver, he said, was blameless.]





Chomsky, N. & Halle, M. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.


Gethin, A.1990. Antilinguistics: A Critical Assessment of Modern Linguistic Theory and Practice. Oxford: Intellect





26 April 2010  minor amendments 21 January 2011



The English-Learning and Languages Review Ć HOMEPAGE