In the sentence:

Men, women and children are people.

What is the term for the combination of nouns and conjunctions found in the subject position?

"Compound noun" doesn't quite seem to fit the bill here.

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    It is just a subject with three NPs in distributive coordination. Distributive here means that the property of being people applies to 'men', 'woman' and 'children' separately - it's distributed between them. (cf. 'Lee, Robin and Sam like each other', which is an example of "joint coordination" in which the property of liking each other can only apply to them jointly. as a group) – BillJ Sep 14 '16 at 17:54
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    The general term is a coordinate structure. This is the term made famous in the Coordinate Structure Constraint, which forbids extraction from one conjunct in a coordinate structure: the dishes that he washed, but not *the dishes that he washed and swept the floor. – jlawler Sep 14 '16 at 22:21

Men, women and children is not a word, but a phrase (a noun phrase = NP 1 ), so you can not apply morphological terminology like compounding here.
I don't think there's a special name for NP formation via conjunction other than exactly that - NP formation by conjunction.

1 Depending on theory, replace NP by DP (determiner phrase), assuming additional empty determiners for each noun.

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  • What would be considered the head of the construction? – player.mdl Sep 14 '16 at 16:28
  • This is a potentially difficult issue depending on whether you restrict your syntax to binary branching. In the most simple way, you will have three NPs with N heads which are then brought together to a single subject NP by adjunction. – lemontree Sep 14 '16 at 16:33
  • @player.mdl - are you asking if there is a term for "subject" when the subject in question is made up from more than one noun? – Mr. Black Sep 14 '16 at 16:35
  • @Xxxxxx any noun phrase. The example simply happens to be contained in subject position. – player.mdl Sep 14 '16 at 17:33

The example Men, women and children are people could have a compound noun men, women, and children, but it would be unwise to refer to it that way, using the term "compound noun", because of confusion with another quite different construction, also a "compound noun", which is morphological rather than syntactic and does not use a conjunction. For instance, woman child is a compound noun, stressed on the first part of the compound, which refers to a person who is both a woman and a child.

So, although in the example, men, women, and children might be a compound noun, it shouldn't be called that, because it would be confusing. I'll refer to it as a conjoined noun instead, to avoid that confusion.

I notice in other comments that men, women, and children is referred to as a conjunction of three noun phrases (or DPs, or subjects), rather than three nouns. That's misleading, though it could be true. The general rule in English is that several constituents of the same category can be conjoined, and since a NP (noun phrase) can be absent any overt determiner, in the example, we could be dealing with either a conjunction of three nouns or a conjunction of three NPs. If we add a determiner or an adjective to the example, the situation becomes clear:

The men, women, and children are hungry.  
The men, the women, and the children are hungry.  

The first has a conjunction of three nouns; the second has a conjunction of three NPs. A standard example of structural ambiguity is

old men and women

which can have either the conjunction of nouns men and women modified by the adjective old, or else the conjunction of the two NPs old men and women.

In the original example, with neither determiner nor adjective to disambiguate, the two possible structures have the same sense, so far as I can tell.

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  • "I notice in other comments that men, women, and children is referred to as a conjunction of three noun phrases (or DPs, or subjects), rather than three nouns. That's misleading, though it could be true." That's a good point, but isn't it then also misleading to call it a "conjoined noun", suggesting that it is a single noun? Rather, I understand your argument such that it's three nouns that are conjoned to one NP, so it should be "conjoined NP" or "noun conjunction", right? – lemontree Sep 18 '16 at 21:04
  • @lemontree, no it's not misleading to suggest that the conjunction of 3 nouns is a single noun, because it is in fact a single noun. This is another instance where traditional grammarians have been led astray by terminology. Here, there are two good reasons for considering a conjunction of nouns to be a noun. (1) It preserves the generalization that the conjunction of several constituents always has the same category as that of each constituent. (2) A conjunction of several nouns behaves syntactically just like any other noun -- it can be modified by an adjective, e.g. – Greg Lee Sep 18 '16 at 22:55
  • Okay, then we're again just presupposing completely different theories. To me, a noun is a word, and men, women and children certainly isn't a word. – lemontree Sep 19 '16 at 8:02
  • @lemontree, the difference being that I have evidence for my theory (I gave you some), while you have no evidence at all for yours. – Greg Lee Sep 19 '16 at 8:16
  • The "evidence" is that we defined a noun as a word. And under that definition, my claim that the phrase is not a word is just as correct as your claim with your completely different definition. In the framework I am assuming, there was nothing wrong about my statement. Whether the one or the other theory makes the more powerful, provable, ... predictions now is a different matter, but don't start with that "You have a different theory and therefore you are wrong" thing again. It's annoying. I misunderstood your argument, we are assuming different definitions and that's okay. – lemontree Sep 19 '16 at 8:40

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