Isn't the compound 'machine learning' problematic, inasmuch as the non-head of the compound is the external argument of learning. This would make it an auspicious compound (http://www.bobaljik.uconn.edu/papers/compounds.pdf). How are we to understand the compound?

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    That's not a problem if you call it statistical learning instead :P Joking aside, my lay speculation, based on how I understand the term, is that 'machine learning' isn't deverbalised from 'machines learn', but rather 'learning' as a noun is modified by 'machine' (like 'human behaviour', or 'animal morphology', or whatever). Probably I intuited this way because 'learning' is already fairly established as a noun (that's beneficial to your learning) and 'machine' already appears in a lot of compounds like this (machine language, machine gun). Do you think that works? Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 17:22
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    Noun compounds are always problematic. Machine learning can mean learning by machine(s), for machine(s), about machine(s), or with machine(s), for instance, and those are not the only ones. Every time one loses words, one loses structure and therefore gains ambiguity.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 6, 2017 at 20:39

1 Answer 1


It's one of many kinds of compounds, and is not even exocentric (its head is "learning").

As it happens, it is exactly parallel to "machine stitching" (recorded in COHA in 1917) and "book learning" (in COHA from 1835).

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    That's the instrument interpretation. I would normally associate machine learning with the agent interpretation; i.e, more like hand-stitching, where a personal agent is involved (hand is just a metonym for person). I.e, it's the machine that's learning, not somebody else.
    – jlawler
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 16:46
  • I never thought of that meaning ,@jlawler, but you're probably right: I now understand a part of the original question that I didn't understand at first. It also never occurred to me that 'hand' in hand-stitching might be metonymic.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 18:05

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