Compositional vs. Frozen Sequences
Jorge Baptista
University of Algarve, Portugal
1. Introduction
• Compound words and frozen expressions
constitute a major part of the lexicon of any
• Their definition is not easy, and conceptual and
terminological discussions abound in the
• Traditionally, compound words are usually
defined on semantic grounds using the criterion
of non-compositionality, that is, there is a
compound word when the global meaning of a
multiword expression can not be calculated
based on the meaning of its individual
elements when they are used separately in the
• Accessorily, it is also sometimes noticed that
compound expressions often present some
formal, syntactic (or combinatorial)
• In fact, in many cases, compound words are
semantically ‘opaque’:
• you may be surprised at learning that a dog-collar is to
be used by people (priests),
• and that a dogfight may involve fighter planes and no
dogs at all.
• It is clear that in some of these word combinations, the
form dog is remotely, but still somehow related to a
general meaning of the word dog (the animal).
• However, in other combinations that relation, although
it might be historically explainable, has been
completely lost, and the new lexical entry has been
• In many cases, compound words are only ‘half
• even if you know that a dogfish is a fish, you
may ignore what kind of fish it precisely is;
• even if you know that a fish knife may be a kind
of knife used to chop fish, you may not be able
to describe it unless you already know its shape
• When you speak of an radioactive element’s
half-life, this means the period of time (life) it
takes to loose half of its radiactivy.
• Notice also that spelling rules – i.e. the
orthographical agglutination of two words or the
use of hyphen instead as opposed to the use of
a blank separator – are just writing
conventions (you do not use neither blanks
nor hyphens when you speak!), and cannot be
consider an infallible guide to determine if a
word combination is a compound or not.
• At most, orthography consecrates writing
habits, as the variation attested in dictionaries
can easily confirm (fish knife/fish-knife; fish
• There are many compound words that are (or at
least seem to be) semantically ‘transparent’:
• a heavy element is indeed heavy but in a
physical and not in an ordinary sense.
• When archeologist talk about some date before
present, one has to know that present was
conventionally defined at 1950.
• In many ordinary expressions, like time adverbs, the
choice of determinants and prepositions and the
resulting meaning are completely unpredictable:
at noon but not *at morning
in the evening but not *on the evening
in the morning but not *in morning
by morning but also by the morning
(please remember Prof. Machonis’ lecture on the distinction between idioms of
encoding and of decoding).
• Defining compound words based solely on their noncompositional meaning presupposes that it is possible
to identify clearly the meaning of individual, isolated
• It seems like common sense that people usually know
what a words means.
• However, as M. Gross has often showed, the meaning
of a word is inextricably related to the word’s syntax,
i.e. the words it co-occurs with.
• The only way for determining the meaning of a given
word is by inserting it in several, different sentences
and, by carefully controlling formal changes on those
sentences, looking for changes (or invariance) in
• In fact, I expect that most of you may have disagreed
on which of the previous examples were to considered
‘transparent’, half-transparent’ or even ‘opaque’ wordcombinations.
• Intuitions about meaning are almost always vague a
too imprecise to be used in a reproducible way.
• We, therefore, would rather use syntactic, formal
criteria to identify compounds, so that, in these
examples, we may say that the words are ‘frozen’
together, even if the meaning of the combination is
relatively ‘transparent’.
• By ‘frozen’ we mean that two or more elements
of the expression do not show any distributional
• If we consider the set of time-related nouns
(dawn, morning, afternoon, sunset, evening,
night), only some of these nouns can appear
with a given preposition or with some
determiners and modifiers.
• This blocking of distributional variation cannot
be predicted and the acceptable combinations
have to included in the lexicon, therefore they
should be treated as compound lexical units.
• Every part-of-speech shows both simple and
compound words.
• For example, word-combinations such as the
man in the street could very well be accounted
as an indefinite pronoun (similar to everyone):
Politicians always cared about the opinion of
the man in the street
• Usually, many compound prepositions and
conjunctions have already been included in
current dictionaries:
John stopped in the middle of the street
John came to Paris by way of Madrid
John came to Paris in spite of my warnings
against it
John came to Paris because of my warnings
• There are some (productive?) rules to produce
compound adjectives:
-like : to be life-like, Algol-like languages
-proof : to be (bullet + water + …) -proof
• Other compound adjectives are frozen on
purely combinatorial ways:
John is (sick and tired + *tired and sick) of
saying that
Moreover, in English, verb+particule combinations
forming phrasal verbs, can be considered a especial
case of compound verb:
John ran (for a mile)
John ran away (to Brazil)
The batteries are running down
John ran into Mary
John ran off to Brazil
John ran off with a book
John’s lecture ran on
The printer ran out of paper
The truck ran over the dog
John ran through the entire proceeding
• Some compound words can be described in a
regularly way, by means of finite-state transducers, as,
for example, the (potentially infinite) set of compound
one hundred and twenty-one,
twenty-one thousand two hundred and twenty-one
• The number of compound words in a text,
particularly in scientific and technical texts, is
usually very high.
• They constitute meaning units that must be
identified as a block and not as a string of
simple words.
• This becomes even more crucial if one
considers that the majority of compounds have
an unpredictable overall meaning, that cannot
be directly calculated from the meaning their
internal elements.
• In this lecture, we will focus on syntactic
properties that can be used to identify
• Being a major part of many languages’ lexicon,
the task of retrieving and describing them into
dictionaries is not trivial, especially if these
dictionaries are meant to be used in natural
language processing.
• While many statistical methods have been put
in place to retrieve compound (or multiword)
lexical units from texts, it remains the linguist’s
task to validate those word combinations as
compound lexical units and to build the
dictionaries for them.
• In order to do this, linguists have to rely on
syntactical properties, which can only be done
by learning the language’s syntactic general
• It is only then that linguists can find out the
combinatorial constraints on those rules shown
by multiword expressions.
This presentation is structured in two parts:
• first we will present some of the major
syntactical properties distinguishing compound
nouns from ordinary noun phrases; and
• in the second part we will give some examples
of how the same methodology can be applied to
the identification of compound adverbs.
1. Compound nouns.
• Probably the most known case of compounding,
compound nouns constitute the largest of all
compound word classes.
• There is a linguistic reason for it: compound nouns
must surely represent the larger class of compound
• In every domain (scientific, technical, political, etc.)
there is a constant need for coining new
denominations for new objects, tools, concepts,
products and so on, the nouns being the most natural
POS to accommodate such new designations.
• Available lists of compound nouns show that these are
formed by sequences of grammatical categories
identical to those appearing in ordinary (i.e. not frozen)
noun phrases:
a nice dog (a dog) / a hot dog (a sandwich)
a square table (a table) / a square root (a
mathematical function)
Adam’s orange (an orange) / Adam’s apple (a part of
the body)
(see G. Gross et al. 1986 for a comprehensive typology of French compound nouns)
• In view of this formal identity, defining
compound words becomes a matter of stating
the differences between compounds and free
word combinations, especially in the case of
non-opaque compounds.
• As we shall see, this distinction is not as clearcut as dictionaries and grammars sometimes
could lead one to believe.
• This presentation will show some of the basic
syntactic properties that can help distinguishing
compounds from free word combinations.
• It is clear from what has been said before, that
we have moved away from the strict framework
of traditional grammar studies, which place
compounding as part of Morphology.
• In the Lexicon-grammar approach, compounds
are described with the very same tools used to
describe the syntax of noun phrases.
• In order to identify a compound as such it is
therefore necessary to check if that particular
word combination shows any constraints to the
combinatorial properties that one would expect
to find in a noun phrase (NP) formed by the
same internal POS sequence
(G. Gross 1988, 1989).
• This corresponds to describing the grammar of
noun phrases and then to compare those
syntactical properties to the properties of any
word-combination that is a candidate for the
status of compound word.
• To make things clearer in this presentation, our
examples here will consist of already wellknown compound noun.
• By analogy, the same methodology can be
extended to other, more complex, word
• Let’s take the examples square table / square
root. In a free NP with the internal structure
Adjective + Noun (AN), where the adjective is
often a free modifier of the noun, the predicative
function of the adjective over the noun is
obviously in an explicit paraphrase with relative
clause with auxiliary verb be:
a square table : a table that is square
• This is not the case with the compound square
a square root : *a root that is square
and also with many other compound nouns where
we say that the adjective looses his predicativity.
Also, adjectives can be further modified by an
a square table : a perfectly square table
a square table : a table that is perfectly square
a square root : * a perfectly square root
a square root : *a root that is perfectly square
• When the AN combination is free, both the
adjective and the noun can vary, provided that
basic distributional constraints are respected.
Therefore, table can be replaced by other nouns:
a square (table + door + carpet + …)
in the same way as square can be replaced by
other distributionally similar adjectives:
a (square + oval + triangular + oblong + …) table
• However, when an AN combination forms a
compound noun, distributional variation is
a square (root + *twig + *branch + …)
a (square + *oval + *triangular + *oblong + …)
• In some cases, the same string is ambiguous. For
example, round table can be analyzed either as a free
combination or as a compound noun. In this case, only
the syntactic environment, i.e. the remaining words it
appears with in the sentence may help to disambiguate
I have bought a round table for my dining room
(= a piece of furniture)
I have attended a round table on Chinese syntax
(= an event)
• While in the free AN combination, the noun table is a
concrete object that can be purchased, the compound
noun designates an event, making it possible for it to
appear as a complement of to attend.
• Albeit there are many compound nouns that
may be ambiguous with free word
combinations, usually they are much less
ambiguous then simple words.
• Usually, in a free NP, adjectives are just
facultative modifiers of the noun. They can be
deleted without changing the overall meaning of
the NP (nor the meaning of the sentence where
the NP is inserted):
John bought a (E + square) table
• However, with some abstract nouns that
express predicates and are hence called
predicative nouns (M.Gross 1981; see below),
the presence of a modifier is often obligatory
(Meunier 1981; Giry-Schneider 1995; Laporte
He had an immense esteem for tradition
(Henry James, Portrait of a Lady)
*He had esteem for tradition
*He had an esteem for tradition
• When the adjective is not a mere modifier of the
noun, usually it cannot be deleted, for it is the
AN combination that forms a compound lexical
unit. This is particularly clearer with
semantically opaque compound nouns:
John attended a round table on Chinese Syntax
*John attended a table on Chinese Syntax
John calculated the square root of 9
*John calculated the root of 9
• But in some compounds, even if the adjective is
frozen with the noun, it can be deleted. For
example, most of the times people calculate
square roots, so that in some languages –
Portuguese, for instance –, unless otherwise
stated, the adjective quadrada (equivalent to
square) can be zeroed without any loss of
O João calculou a raiz (E + quadrada) de 9
(John calculated the (E + square) root of 9)
• In many cases, however, the adjective in a
compound noun functions as a classifier of
that noun, distinguishing a particular type of
John likes to drink (red + white + … ) wine
In this case, the adjective can be zeroed, with
some loss of information:
John likes to drink (E + red) wine
• The classifying function of an adjective can be
detected by means of classifying sentences:
A red wine is a type of wine
NP with free modifiers cannot enter these
classifying sentences:
*A square table is a type of table
• Of course, compound nouns cannot enter these
sentences either:
*A square root is a type of root
• When an adjective functions as a modifier, it is
sometimes to see a (usually) small distribution
John calculated the (square + cubic) root of that value
John likes to drink (red + white + … ) wine
which is closed for distributional variation:
John calculated the (square + cubic + *triangular +
*spherical) root of that value
John likes to drink (red + white + *yellow + *blue… )
• In this sense, AN combinations where the adjective is
a classifier can be described as compound nouns.
• The extension of distributional paradigm of the
classifier adjective can be rather large (acids) and
open to the coining of new terms or relatively small
(teeth and vertebrae) and closed to further additions:
John poured some (ascorbic + citric + nitric + … )
acid into the solution
The dentist repaired one of my (incisive + canine +
molar + …) teeth
John was injured in one of his (cervical + lumbar +
…) vertebrae
• When one considers the compound red wine, one finds
that many toponyms (Ntop) designating wine-producing
regions can replace wine:
John likes to drink a glass of (wine + Porto + Bordeaux + …)
• These combinations can be derived from a deleted
occurrence of wine :
John likes to drink a glass of (E + Porto + Bordeaux + …) wine
• The number of Ntop wine combinations is obviously very
large (every wine region, in principle), but one should keep
in mind the highly conventional nature of these
combinations, which are determined by extra-linguistic
• Extensive lists can be drawn of such combinations, but
their linguistic interest is small.
• Some adjectives combine in a highly exclusively way
with a very short set of nouns (often only one):
This noun is inflected in the nominative case
• In these cases, the noun of some AN compounds (but
not all) allow for the zeroing of the noun, leaving the
adjective in a (superficial) noun slot:
John prefers to drink red (E + wine) to white (E + wine)
The dentist repaired one (incisive + canine + molar +…)
(E + tooth)
This noun is inflected in the nominative (E + case)
• This is probably one of the reasons why dictionaries
have classified so many adjectives both as adjectives
and nouns (see M. Gross 1998 for further discussion of this subject).
However, this is not always the case:
John was injured in a (*cervical + *lumbar + …)
• or it may depend on the language and the NA involved.
For Portuguese, for instance, the reduction of N in this
case is observed with some Adj but not others:
O João ficou ferido numa (E + vértebra) (cervical +
*dorsal + *lombar + *sacra)
• A particular case of AN combination involves
relation adjectives, i.e. adjectives derived from
nouns, such as presidential (from president).
• These adjectives never allow the formation of
the relative clause, neither the insertion of an
adverbial modifier:
The presidential address to the Congress <was
very disturbing>
*The address to the Congress that was
presidential <was very disturbing>
*The very presidential address to the Congress
<was very disturbing>
Following M. Gross (1981), we consider that nouns such
as address express predicates and are therefore called
predicative nouns.
Relation adjectives, such as presidential, when combined
with predicative nouns, do not function as mere modifiers
of the noun. Instead, they are derived from a complement
The president’s address to the Congress < was very
disturbing >
• In this sentence, President is interpreted as an
argument (in this case, the subject) of the
predicative noun address.
• This syntactic and semantic relation between
the two nouns (President – address) is of the
same nature as the relation between a subject
and verb, and it has a formal counterpart in the
The President made an address to the Congress
• We consider this to be an elementary sentence,
where the predicative node is the noun address,
which selects its two arguments (President,
• In this sentence, to make is a support verb
(Vsup; also called light verb):
• it is devoid of meaning and it functions as a
morphological tool to actualize the predicative
noun, carrying the tense morphemes that the
noun cannot express.
Now, the adjective presidential can enter many other AN
combinations, involving predicative nouns:
The presidential campaign <…>
However, some of these combinations cannot be
analyzed from the reduction of sentences with support
In fact, the NP The presidential campaign above is
ambiguous for it can be read in two ways:
(a) it is ‘the campaign that the President is making’, and
in this case, the NP is equivalent to:
The president’s campaign <has been extremely violent>
b) it is a campaign where many people run for the office
of President (and not necessarily the President himself),
and in this case the NP can appear in sentences such as:
The presidential campaign <takes place in September>
Notice that the regularly derived NP cannot appear in this
*The president’s campaign takes place in September
It is therefore necessary to study in detail the properties
of all AN combinations where A is a relation adjective and
N a predicative noun in order to determine if this
combination can be regularly derived from an elementary
sentence with a support verb or, else, if this derivation is
blocked in some way, and has become a compound
The next case illustrates a curious type of blocking
involving relation adjectives.
In English, there is no relation adjective derived from sun
or moon, which are of Germanic origin, but instead there
is the corresponding Latin adjectives lunar (from luna,
‘moon’) and solar (from sol, ‘sun’).
Some of the AN noun phrases involving these relation
adjectives can regularly be derived from elementary
sentences where moon or sun are the argument of a
predicative noun, such as eclipse:
the eclipse of the (moon + sun) <lasted 20 minutes>
the (lunar + solar) eclipse <lasted 20 minutes>
?*the (moon + sun)’s eclipse <lasted 20 minutes>
*the (moon + sun) eclipse <lasted 20 minutes>
There are, however, many AN combinations that one
cannot derive from moon or sun:
the lunar month <lasts 28 days>
*the moon’s month <lasts 28 days>
*the month of the moon <lasts 28 days>
*the moon month <lasts 28 days>
the solar year <lasts 365,25 days>
*the sun’s year <lasts 365,25 days>
*the year of the sun <lasts 365,25 days>
?*the sun year <lasts 365,25 days>
Finally, some compounds show morphosyntactic
constraints: while their elements can vary in gender
or/and number when used independently, together they
do not show any variation.
For example, national waters, is always used in the
plural, in spite of the uncountable nature of water:
They prevented the ship from entering
(national waters + *national water)
There is a certain degree of institutionalization in
compounding. Sometimes several, different structures
may be available in the language in order to designate
the same concept or object, but the language retains only
one of them. For example, the name of the ‘machine
used to take photographs’ might well have been named
in the following ways:
• photographic machine (AN)
• photographing machine
(V-ing N, as in washing machine)
• photo(graph) machine (NN, as in copy machine)
• photographier (N-er, as in photocopier)
Instead, it is the simple word camera that is used to name
this object.
When comparing different languages, one finds out that
each may adopt a different strategy, hence:
appareil photo (NN) ‘photo aparatus’
but not :
*appareil à photographier (N à V),
*appareil photographic (NA)
*photograph(i)euse / *photograph(i)eur (N-eur)
máquina fotográfica (NA) ‘photographic machine’
*máquina de fotografar (N de V)
* foto-máquina (NN)
* fotografiadora (N-ora)
In view of these language differences, many dictionaries used
in machine translation may have to include some word
combinations regardless of its semantic transparence.
When describing different types of compound nouns,
different syntactic properties have to be used to
determine their degree of formal frozenness.
These properties are the very same that are used to
describe the syntactic relations between the elements of
a free noun phrase.
Compound nouns differ from free noun phrases in that
they do not admit some (or any) of these properties.
2. Compound Adverbs.
Like for compound nouns, the identification of compound
adverbs poses similar problems.
Simple adverbs are, for the most part, already included in
dictionaries (if we do not consider the adverbs regularly
derived from adjectives with suffix –ly: rapidly), but many
compound adverbs were just left out or, else, are
described as mere expressive word combinations with no
particular lexical status.
It is usually easy to identify the adverbial status of a
phrase, for they can usually occupy the same sentence
slot where we can also find simple adverbs:
John is reading Shakespeare (now + at this moment)
For the most part they are formally identical to
prepositional phrases, but several combinatorial
constraints hold between two or more of their elements.
Usually the resulting overall meaning of the expression
can not be calculated from the sum of the meaning of its
internal elements.
Thus, we find several time adverbs formed with timerelated noun moment:
<That happened> at (this + that + the) moment
<I was doing this> for the moment
<I didn’t believe it> for a moment
<I did it> on the spur of the moment
<I did it> not a moment too soon
First, let us notice that the combination of preposition and
noun is frozen.
If we would replace moment for another, almost
synonymous word, instant, most of these combinations
become unacceptable:
<That happened> at (this + that + *the) instant
<I did it> *for the instant
<I didn’t believe it> for an instant
<I did it> *on the spur of the instant
<That happened> ?not an instant too soon
Several adverbs look like an ordinary noun phrases:
One moment John was reading quietly, the next
moment he was crying
Some of these NP-like adverbs may derive from the
deletion of a preposition, while others do not:
(At + *on + E) one moment John was reading quietly,
(?*at + ?*on + E) the next moment he has crying
Notice, again, that current spelling of many simple
adverbs denounces their former condition of phrases:
John goes jogging (everyday + every night)
The determiner of the noun can sometimes present some
formal variation, as in:
at (this + that + the) moment,
for (a + one) moment
but it becomes frozen when its replacement involves a
clear change in the overall meaning:
John is reading Shakespeare for the moment
I believed for a moment John that was reading
In some adverbs the preposition and the noun may be frozen but
the noun allows for the insertion of modifiers:
<That happened> at that unfortunate moment
<That happened> at the moment we are speaking
<That happened> at this (precise + exact) moment
Some of these insertions may also be frozen:
<That happened> at (this + that + *the) very moment
<That happened> at the (last + *first) moment
<That happened> *at this (imprecise + inexact) moment
or depend on the determiner-modifier combinations involved (for
example, a definite article and a relative clause):
<That happened> at (*this + *that + the) very moment
I was speaking
Other constraints on formal variation can be found:
John arrived not an moment too (soon + *late)
There are some compound adverbs that can be related
with simple –ly suffixed adverbs:
I had momentarily forgotten how beautiful this country is
I had forgotten for a moment how beautiful this country is
But in other cases this relation is not possible:
John goes jogging (daily + nightly)
*John goes jogging (on + at) (every day + every night)
Finally, some subordinate clauses function as frozen
John will stay in his post until hell freezes over (= forever)
John will only get my post when hens get teeth (= never)
John will only get my post when pigs fly (= never)
In these examples, one cannot change any element of
the (frozen) subordinate clause.
Following M. Gross (1986) concept of extended adverb,
subordinate adverbial clauses have a syntactic behavior
that is homologous to simple adverbs and adverbial
prepositional phrases.
Particular cases of frozen subordination are comparative
adverbs, modifying verbs or adjectives:
John moves like a bull in a china shop (= clumsily)
John cried like Magdalen (= very much)
The crowd rose to its feet as one man
(=together, at the same time)
John is as fast as a bullet (= very fast)
John is as white as a sheet (= very white)
Notice, in some cases, the absence of the first
comparative particle:
John is deaf as a post
Some compound adjectives may have formed from such
comparative structures:
John is stone deaf
John is deaf (as + like) a stone
but other do not admit this paraphrase:
*John is post deaf
*John is bullet fast
*John is sheet white
There are several compound adverbs that select (or
modify) only a limited set of verbs (or predicates):
John (knows + learned + recited) the poem by heart
In much the same way, the adverb man-to-man can only
modify SPEAK-like verbs:
John (spoke + talked) man-to-man to Paul
However, there are often many distributional,
unpredictable constraints:
*John (chatted + whispered) man-to-man to Paul
*John gossiped man-to-man with Paul
Certain verb-adverb combinations are so constraint that
the adverb can only modify a single verb:
John heard that (E + straight) from the horse’s
mouth (= directly from a bona fide source)
In spite of the fact that adverbs are facultative modifiers
of the verb and can usually be replaced by other, simple
word adverbs, these highly constraint word combinations
are closer to frozen sentences.
Therefore, linguistic description of compound adverbs is
not just a matter of showing their internal word
combination constraints.
It also involves representing the way they interact with
the other sentence’s elements.
In this sense, it is, therefore, not very much different from
describing the syntax of simple adverbs.
3. Conclusions
• The theoretical and methodological framework of
Lexicon-Grammar has demonstrated the quantitative
importance of compounding in the many languages’
• Using formal criteria to identify compound words made
clear that most of them show an internal POS
structure similar to that of ordinary phrases.
• Comparing the syntax of free combinations with
restrictions on those formal properties proved to be
the most correct way identifying compounds without
having to rely on vague, imprecise, and irreproducible
meaning intuitions.
• At the same time, it is the very grammar of the
language that comes under scope.
• Compounds are not just bizarre word combinations;
they are a clue to the languages grammar.
• Finally, by adopting a formal, taxonomical approach
and by the careful construction of linguistic resources,
Lexicon-Grammar enables researchers working on
different but related languages to compare inventories
and syntactic properties (M. Gross 1984) of simple
verbs, compound adverbs (E. Ranchhod and De Gioia
1996) and frozen sentences (Labelle (ed.) 1995).
• These comparative studies constitute a solid base
towards future machine translation.
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