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Attributive genius

I’m posting this week from a land in flames—the American West, where many wildfires are burning out of control. In good-citizen fashion, I read the poster put together by local authorities, found online and posted in local businesses, that tells you what you need to know about the situation. The text of the poster strikes me as an excellent example of the shorthand that English achieves by using nouns attributively, leaving it to the intuition of the reader or listener to determine what the exact relationship of two linked-up nouns is. It’s a useful tool, and spares English the need to have adjectival forms that are separate from nouns, as well as case endings that might indicate these relationships.

The poster contains the following noun + noun mashups, all beginning with fire:

fire ban
fire restriction
fire hand tools
fire watch
fire prevention
fire extinguisher

Two of these compounds, firefighting and fireworks, have been around long enough in English that their union is official. Another one, fire extinguisher, remains an open compound, but it gets an entry in most dictionaries because it’s not just any old thing that extinguishes a fire; it’s a particular device.

Why don’t all these other compounds merit a place in a dictionary? Lexicographers do in fact ponder these matters, but they usually do not enshrine in a dictionary a combination of two nouns that can be understood intuitively; we call this sort of compound a transparent compound. Native speakers have a clear advantage in deciding what transparent compounds mean, but English learners can usually find their way to the proper meaning of a noun + noun compound as well, by using their instincts and a few tips.

A fire ban and fire restrictions can be deciphered correctly as a ban on fires and restrictions on fires. But is a fire hand tool a hand tool on fire? Not quite. And neither is fire prevention a prevention on fires. How then is the noun + noun relationship determined?

For an English learner having doubts about how nouns in combination work, the first thing to consult is your own linguistic genius: given the context, what do you think the phrase means? You will often find that context offers up the meaning of two nouns joined up in a sentence. Stop number two is a dictionary, where you may find the compound noun listed as a headword; especially if you have a good learner’s dictionary. If these two options fail, you still have one other way to get a two-fisted grip on a compound form: look at the second noun of the compound and ask yourself: what preposition typically follows this noun? If you don’t know, examples in a dictionary will usually tell you this. This method works particularly well for abstract nouns.

A fire ban is a ban on fires, because the preposition that you use with ban is usually on. By the same token, fire prevention is the prevention of fires, because of is the preposition that you use with prevention. You’ll find that it’s a rather small group of prepositions that lend themselves to this sort of compound formation. The big players are in, on, of, for, and with. Thus,

chicken soup (soup with chicken)
street vendor (vendor in/on a street)
dining table (table for dining)
volcano eruption (eruption of a volcano)

Keep in mind, however, that these prepositions have many meanings, and some nouns can be followed by a number of different prepositions. All you can do is try your luck.

We’re armed now to deal with all of the fire compounds above except two: what’s a fire hand tool, and what’s a fire watch? The text of the poster gives us some pretty good clues, in the sentences that these terms appear in:

Cutting and welding operations MUST have
• fire hand tools and 40 lbs. worth of fire extinguishers . . .
• a person identified as a fire watch standing by continuously . . .

Fire hand tools (earlier in the document they’re called firefighting tools) are hand tools that you can use for fighting fires. A fire watch is a person who watches for, or watches out for, a fire. This calls up an older meaning of watch—a person whose job is to watch—that we normally use watchman for today.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Excellent post, Orin. I like your advice to learners that they consult their own “linguistic genius”!
    Fire watch made me think of neighbourhood watch, which is comparable in a way, but different in that the watch is a collective watching over something already there; or watching out for it in the sense “keeping an eye on it” rather than “waiting on alert for it”.

  • Thanks for your comment, Stan. I would have guessed the collective meaning of “fire watch” myself if the poster had not glossed it so specifically. I suppose it could be a rotating duty, in which people took turns being the watchperson, but I like the idea that it might hark bark to an older meaning.

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