Is there any definable difference between collocations and compound nouns? Or is it just frequency?

The answer does not seem to be transparency vs idiomaticity - looking at the text I'm presenting to my students tomorrow, sunlight looks like a compound noun but its meaning is completely predictable, whereas my intuition and textbook say primary consumers (in a food chain) is a collocation, but it's a technical term so the meaning is not predictable in isolation. And how about carbon dioxide?

Edit: this is helpful:

"Compounds include word pairs that occur consecutively in language and typically are immutable in function. Noun-noun pairs are one such example, which not only occur consecutively but also function as a constituent. Cowie [8] notes that compounds form a bridge between collocations and idioms, since, like collocations, they are quite invariable, but they are not necessarily semantically opaque." McKeown, K.R. and Radev, D.R., 2000. Collocations. Handbook of Natural Language Processing. Marcel Dekker, pp.1-23.

And this: Bauer, L. (1998). When is a sequence of two nouns a compound in English? English Language and Linguistics, 2(1), 65-86. doi:10.1017/S1360674300000691

  • 2
    There's certainly a difference between compound nouns and syntactic constructions. Items like "greenhouse" and "cotton-plant" are morphological compounds, single words, whereas "green house" and "cotton shirt" are syntactic constructions consisting of separate words.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 15:13
  • 2
    There are syntactic tests for establishing compound vs syntactic construction status. For example, in your "primary consumers" example, the component parts can enter into relations of coordination and modification, e,g, "primary and secondary consumers" but compounds like, say, "ice-cream" do not submit to this manipulation, cf. the ungrammatical *"ice- and custard- creams".
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 15:14
  • What about French teacher (nationality) versus French teacher (occupation)? Both of those seem to be productive but only the first can be coordinated.
    – mango
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 14:16
  • There's no doubt that these are syntactic constructions. not compounds. "French" (nationality) is an adjective modifying "teacher", and "French" (occupation) is a complement of "teacher".
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 15:53
  • That's what I thought. But my point is that the first one can be syntactically manipulated whereas the second cannot - *a French teacher and a German one (meaning occupation) - so your test would falsely distinguish it as a compound.
    – mango
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 8:19


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