The demeco project is about default meanings in compound interpretation. So what are compounds? In linguistics, compounds are words that consist of parts that are themselves words. For example, football, armchair, and toothbrush are all compounds, because in each case they combine two elements that are themselves words in English: foot + ball, arm + chair, and tooth + brush. In contrast, a word like player, which also consists of two parts (play + er), is not a compound, because er is not itself a word and can only occur attached to a word (compare singer, trainer, and killer). English compounds are not restricted to combinations of two nouns, but they form the most frequent class of compounds. One also finds, for example, adjective noun combinations (e.g. blackbird) and noun verb combinations (e.g. daydream). The demeco project exclusively investigates noun noun combinations.

So far, this should all seem very straightforward, but as so often, the devil is in the detail. One such tricky detail in English is that compounds can be written in three different ways: as one string, as in the examples above, or divided by hyphens, or separated by a space. Sometimes, one and the same pair of words occurs in all three variants, even though there is no apparent difference in meaning between the three forms. Compare the three sentences below, which contain chatroom, chat room, and chat-room, respectively.

(1) He got caught bragging about it in a chatroom and served 20 months in prison.

(2) Anyone in the world could have joined that chat room if they happened to find it.

(3) In spring 2007, on the well-trafficked skier’s chat-room, (which is based in Calgary), the Fortress discussion thread spanned 25 pages – most of it passionate, much of it furious.

While combinations written without a space or with hyphens are usually considered as single words and hence as compounds, the status of noun noun combinations that are written spaced has created much discussion. Clearly, when one takes compounds to be words, but they are not orthographically represented as one word, it runs against most people’s intuitive understanding of what words are. However, from a linguistic point of view, words as orthographic units play only a limited role, as written language, and with that, orthography, is regarded as of secondary importance. Turning to spoken language, there is one agreed criteria for compoundhood of noun noun combinations: if the combination occurs with left-stress, then it is uncontroversially regarded as a compound. According to this criterion, soap opera and agony aunt are compounds, even though they are never written as orthographic words. However, this criterion only works in one way. That is, if a combination has left-stress, then it surely is a compound, but if it has right-stress, it can also be a compound. The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, discussing stress and other traditionally used criteria, comes to the conclusion: “In sum, there seems to be no established set of trustworthy procedures that could tell us reliably and theory-neutrally for a given NN [noun noun] construction whether it is a noun or a phrase ([…])” Bauer, Lieber, & Plag (2013: 434).

In our project, we adopt an inclusive approach, treating all English noun noun constructions as compounds (see Bell 2011 for comprehensive arguments for this approach).


Bell, Melanie J. 2011. At the boundary of morphology and syntax: Noun noun constructions in English. In Alexandra Galani, Glyn Hicks & George Tsoulas (eds.), Morphology and its interfaces (Linguistics Today 178), 137-167. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Bauer, Laurie, Rochelle Lieber & Ingo Plag. 2013. The Oxford reference guide to English morphology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The three example sentences given above are all taken from the COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a large collection of American English texts spanning the years 1990 to 2017. It is accessible here: “” and was created by Mark Davies (Davies, Mark. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 560 million words, 1990-present. Available online at The exact sources of the sentences are (in the order of the sentences):

Date 2005 (20050122)/ Title Could Computer Viruses Work as Terror Tools?; Extreme X-Rays/ Source SPOK: CNN_Next

Date 2015/ Publication information Mar2015, p70-79. 10p. 15 Color Photographs./ Title How The New York Times works/ Author WIEDEMAN, REEVES;/ Source MAG: Popular Mechanics

Date 2007 (Dec)/ Publication information Vol. 60, Iss. 4; pg. 136/ Title Fortress Of Ineptitude/ Author Chris Solomon/ Source MAG: Skiing