In the VocabularySpellingCity offices, we have some exciting discussions. For instance, must the word “school” always be a noun?
I was in strong disagreement with an experienced English teacher (note, I have no such credentials). She argued “school” could only be used as a noun.
I spoke with some confidence: “What about school days, school bus, school boy, school books? What sorts of books would these be? They are school books. See, school can also be an adjective. Lets open up Merriam Webster and I’ll show you….”
Then, to my amazement: “Wow!….Merriam Webster lists school as a noun and a verb but not as an adjective! OK, lets try another dictionary…” The same thing! I was stupified, stumped, flummoxed, and dumbfounded.
The first two dictionaries that I pulled up online both listed school only as a noun or a verb, (ie “Would you like to be schooled in the use of dictionaries?”). Neither of these first two dictionaries acknowledged the use of school as an adjective.
Finally, I found Dictionary.com which mentions three uses of the word “school”: noun, verb, and adjective! While this seemed obvious to me, I was now aware that there was room for disagreement.
What to make of Merriam Webster? What do they think about the school bus?Merriam lists school bus as a noun. It seem that they consider these words – school days, school bus, school boy, school books – to be all open form compound word. An open form compound word? Mostly, people think of compound words as being two words joined together with no spaces or hyphens between which makes them “closed form”. Examples include butterfly, shoehorn, and windmill.
Open form compound words are compound words that are not joined together like “closed form” compound words but have a space in them. Some examples of compound words with a space in them: post office, real estate, fire engine, and light bulb.
Numbers, by the way, are a really arbitrary combination of compound word types. There’s seventeen (closed form). And twenty-three (hyphenated). And three hundred (open form) but that is not my topic for today, let’s return to the question of:
When is a word a compound word and when is it just an adjective with a noun?
I like this definition of a compound word: When two words form a new word with a new meaning. I think the functional part of this is the idea of a new meaning. For instance, a business office is to me, just a type of office. Adjective. Noun.
But a post office is not really a type of office at all, it’s a type of retail outlet so it’s clearly a compound word and not an adjective noun combination.
Real estate. I would agree that real when used with estate forms a new meaning that is different than thinking of real as an adjective. So it too is a compound word, not just an adjective in front of a noun.
But there are gray areas. Is a green box just a box that is green? Yes. What about a weak box? A mail box? A strong box?
So, back to school:
Is a school bus just a type of bus? IMHO yes. So adjective noun.
Is a school book just a type of book? IMHO yes. So adjective noun.
What about a school desk, is it a type of desk? IMHO yes. So adjective noun.
Is school work just a type of work? IMHO maybe.
Is a school house just a type of house? IMHO NO, it’s not a house at all. It’s a compound word definitely.
School day? A type of day? Maybe.
So there’s some clear cases of school being used as an adjective such as with bus or book. There’s some compound words made with the word school such as school house. And there are some gray areas where I’m not sure and I’d have to consult greater authorities. But, if Merriam Webster is unwilling to acknowledge that school could ever be used as an adjective then I (the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity) am getting a little unsure of who this greater authority will be. Maybe my mom or brothers, all of whom seem to know grammar so much better than me. I mean I.
Now, does any of this matter? Obviously, progressive education has de-emphasized naming parts of speech. But in our gut, we all know that this sort of linguistic question being given its due is really the height of education and civilization.