A contrastive analysis of compounds in english and vietnamese

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HCMC University of Pedagogy




4A 08

Instructor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu, Ph. D

December 30 2011

Firstly, I want to give thanks to my CA teacher – Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu - for giving us many interesting knowledge about Contrastive Analysis of English and Vietnamese. I feel much more confident after learning this course because I have had much deeper understanding of my mother tongue and English. The one CA item I’m really interested in finding more information about English and Vietnamese compounds because I have a habit of writing my diary in English but one day I can’t find the equivalent word “xanh biếc” and “đỏ thắm” in English. As a result, I start studying about them. However, due to the limit of time and my knowledge, there may be some mistakes. I would be very appreciated to receive many feedbacks from our teacher and classmates to make this research better.

Table of Contents

Introduction 4

What is compound? 5

Compounds in English 5

3.1Compound nouns 6

3.2Compound adjectives 7

3.3Compound verbs 10

Compounds in Vietnamese 12

4.1Compound nouns 14

4.2Compound adjectives 15

4.3Compound verbs 17

Teaching implication 19

Conclusion 19

References 20


What is language? It is understood in many different ways including: language as a property of human beings, language as an institutional abstraction, language as a collection of sentences, language as social behavior and knowledge of the mind or a form of action. Whatever it is, it’s typical and specific for human beings. Anybody born in a society learn their own language as a tool of communication. However, as we’re living in a global village with no boundary, we need to communicate with people not only inside our society but also peoples on all over the world. This makes second language learning appear and seem to attract more and more attention. As we have all known, English is an international language and also a compulsory second language in Vietnam. So, how to become experts in English? Or how to grab as much knowledge of English as possible? Or how to just learn English for a specific purpose like listening to English songs or reading newspaper in English? For each purpose, we have an appropriate way of studying. It is said that learning English is like building a house. Grammar is the frame of the house and vocabulary is the bricks. Without one of these two elements, you can’t have a “full house” or in other words, you don’t have perfect English. Vocabulary is a very important aspect of English. It helps you not only in listening but also speaking, reading and writing and so on. How to learn vocabulary? It’s a big question and it’s difficult to answer. Learning vocabulary by heart, learning by reading texts or books in English, learning by listening to music, and learning by comparing the similarities and differences between English and our mother tongue are all the possible ways of obtaining a good English. Learning English through comparing English and Vietnamese compounds is also a way to become good English learners. In this paper, I’ll help you to have an overview of English and Vietnamese compounds in comparison with each other to make it easier for you to remember them and increase your vocabulary sources.

What is compound?

A compound word is a union of two or more words which conveys a unit or special meaning which is not clearly or quickly conveyed by separate words. In English as well as in Vietnamese, there are many types of compounds whose formation doesn’t have any common rules and whose meanings are quite different from the original meaning of individual words.

Compounds in English

According to Ingo Flag in Morphological Productivity, a compound is a word that consists of two elements, the first of which is either a root, a word or a phrase, the other is either a root or a word. English compounds may be classified in many ways such as the word classes or semantic relationship between their components.

There are no specific rules on forming compounds because English is a mostly analytic language. It creates compounds by concatenating words without any case makers. However, there are three forms in which a compound in English is written, they are solid form, hyphenated form and open form.

  • Solid form is a case in which two usually moderately short words appear together as one such as housewife, notebook, keyboard…Solid compounds most likely consist of short units that often have been established in the language for a long time…

  • The hyphenated form is a case in which two or more words are connected by a hyphen. Some types of compound which are often hyphenated are compounds that contain affixes such as house-builder, single-minded; adjective-adjective compounds such as blue-green and verb-verb compounds like freeze-dry

  • The open or spaced form include newer combinations of usually longer words such as distance learning, lawn tennis

In term of formal classification, we have compound nouns, compounds adjectives and compound verbs.
    1. Compound nouns

A compound noun is a noun that is made up of two or more words. Most compound nouns in English are formed by nouns modified by other nouns or adjectives.

For example, the words tooth and paste are nouns but if we join them together, we have the new word toothpaste.

Another example is the word black which is an adjective, board is a noun, but if we join them together, we have blackboard.

In the above examples, we can see that the first word describes or modifies the second word, telling us what kind of object or person it is or what its purpose is. The second word identifies that person or object. Like in the word toothpaste, we can make it clear like this. What is the object? It is paste, a thick soft sticky substance made by mixing a liquid with a powder especially to make a type of glue. What’s its purpose? It’s used for tooth or in other words, it’s used to brush teeth. In the word blackboard, we can see the object is the board and the first part black describes what the board is like.

There are many other ways of constructing a compound noun:






football, boyfriend



manhunt, rainfall






monthly ticket, greenhouse



dry-cleaning, public speaking



washing machine









outsider, onlooker

In a compound noun, stress is very important because it helps to distinguish between compound noun and noun phrase in speaking or listening. Compound nouns usually have stress falling in the first syllable.

For example:

We have the compound noun: girlfriend with stress on the first syllable which means the person who is a romantic female partner.

The word girl friend (noun phrase) which has stress on the second syllable means a friend who is a female.

In general, the meaning of a compound noun is a specialization of the meaning of its head. The modifier limits the meaning of the head. For example, the word girlfriend has the head girl with general meaning of female, then the modifier girl limits the meaning of this word to just one romantic female partner.

    1. Compound adjectives

English compound adjectives are constructed in a very similar way to the compound nouns but are more complex and challenging. A compound adjective is a modifier of a noun. It consists of two or more morphemes of which the component on the left limits or changes the modification of the component on the right and its meaning is usually clear from its combines. For example, in the word “the dark-green dress”: dark limits the green that modifies dress. The adjective phrase is usually written with a hyphen.

There are many ways to build a compound adjective:





past participle

cold-blooded, old-fashioned


present participle

good-looking, hard-wearing



deep-sea, last-minute


past participle

deeply-rooted, densely-populated


present participle

mouth-watering, record-breaking


past participle

shop-soiled, tongue-tied



trouble-free, world-famous



two-door, twenty-page

There are many types of compound adjectives, the two most common type are solid compound adjectives and hyphenated compound adjectives. Usually a compound adjective is hyphened if the hyphen helps readers to differentiate a compound adjective from two adjacent adjectives that each independently modifies the noun. For example:

  • "small appliance industry": a small industry producing appliances

  • "small-appliance industry": an industry producing small appliances

The hyphen is unneeded when capitalization or italicization makes grouping clear. For example:

  • old English scholar”: an old person who is a scholar and has English nationality or an old scholar who studies English

  • Old English scholar”: a scholar of Old English.

Hyphenated compound adjectives may have been formed originally by an adjective preceding a noun:

  • “Round table”  “round - table discussion”

  • “Blue sky”  “Blue – sky law”

  • “Red light”  “Red – light district”

Others are created with a verb preceding an adjective or adverb:

  • “Feel good”  “feel good factor”

  • “Buy now, pay later”  “buy – now pay – later purchase”

Yet others are created with an original verb preceding a preposition:

  • “Stick on”  “stick – on label”

  • “Walk on”  “walk – on part”

  • “Stand by”  “stand – by fare”

The following compound adjectives are always hyphenated when they are not written as one word:

  • An adjective preceding noun added by –d or –ed as past – participle: Loud-mouthed hooligan, middle-aged lady…

  • A noun, adjective, adverb preceding a present participle: an awe – inspiring personality, a long – lasting affair…

  • Numbers spelled out or as numeric: seven – year itch, five - sided polygon, 20 – century poem…

  • A numeric with the affix –fold has a hyphen, but when spelled out takes a solid construction like fifteen fold.

  • Numbers, spelled out or numeric, with added –odd: sixteen-odd, 70-odd

  • Compound adjectives with high- or low- like: high-level discussion, low-price markup

  • Colors in compound: a dark-blue sweater, a reddish-orange dress

  • Fractions as modifier: five-eighths inches

  • Comparatives and superlatives in compound adjectives: the highest-placed competitor, a shorter-term loan…

  • Compounds including two geographical modifiers: Afro-Cuban, African-American

The other compound adjectives are not usually hyphenated. Compound adjectives are considered productive features of English. That means it is not so restricted as it is in many other categories like grammar. It’s not always the case because there are many exceptions when it comes to usage of compounds, the thing we need the most is to check a dictionary to be sure.
    1. Compound verbs

A compound verb is a multi-word compound which acts as a single verb. There are two components. One of them is a light verb which carries any inflections indicating tense, mood, or aspect but only provides fine shades of meaning. The other – called the primary component – is a verb or noun which carries most of the semantics of the compound and determine s its arguments.

There are some ways to form compound verbs:






underline, outrun






downside, upgrade



whitewash, blacklist



sidestep, manhandle



make do



make sure

Sometimes, it’s very difficult to distinguish between compound verbs and phrasal verbs because they are alike in some way. Here is the rules to make a distinction: If we can add an object between two words, it is phrasal verb. For example: we can say “He takes his hat off” while the phrasal verb is take off. However, it’s impossible to say “He ill his dog treat”. Another way to distinguish them is that the second component of phrasal verb is always a preposition, whereas it can be a noun or a verb for compound verb. Nevertheless, it still makes us confuse with phrasal verb and prepositional verb (or preposition + verb compound).

English syntax distinguished between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs like this:


  • I held up my hand.

  • I held up a bank.

  • I held my hand up.

  • I held a bank up.

The first three sentences are possible is English. We hold up means we raise something, it’s a prepositional verb. The preposition up can be detached from the verb and has its own individual meaning “from lower to a higher position”. As a prepositional verb, it has a literal meaning. However, when to hold up means to rob, it is a phrasal verb. A phrasal verb is used in an idiomatic, figurative or even metaphorical context. The preposition is inextricably linked to the verb and the meaning of each word can’t be determined independently but is in fact part of the idiom.

In term of semantic classification of compounds in English, there are endocentric compound, exocentric compound, copulative compound and appositional compound.

  • An endocentric compound consists of a head and modifiers. The head – the categorical part that contains the basic meaning of the whole compound while the modifiers restrict its meaning.

For example: The English compound doghouse: the head is house and the dog is the modifier. This word is understood as the house intended for dog.

  • Exocentric compounds are compounds whose semantic head is not explicitly expressed, and their meaning often can’t be transparently guessed from its constituent parts.

For example, in English, we have the compound white-collar which is neither a kind of collar nor a white thing. White-collar refers to person who works in offices. The collar’s color is a metaphor for socioeconomic status. Similarly, redhead is not a kind of head but is a person with red hair.

  • Copulative compounds are compounds which have two semantic head and their meanings may be a generalization instead of a specialization.

For example: the compound fighter-bomber is an aircraft that is both a fighter and a bomber.

  • Appositional compounds refer to lexemes that have two contrary attributes which classify the compound.

For example, in English compound we have the word player-coach means someone who is a player as well as a coach.

Compounds in Vietnamese

Compounding is a highly productive word formation in Vietnamese. Like English, Vietnamese compounds are words that consist of two or more words which have relationship of meaning and has different meaning from that of individual words.

There are three types of compounds in Vietnamese: coordinate compounds (từ ghép đẳng lập) and subordinate compounds (từ ghép chính phụ) and isolated compounds (từ ghép độc lập).

  • Coordinate compounds are formed by two morphemes, none of them modifies each other or independent of each other such as quần áo (cloths), mua bán (buy and sell), phải trái (right and wrong)… Coordinate compounds express general, synthetic meaning or we can say both words in the coordinate compound have their own meaning when they stand alone. For example, the compound “mua bán” has two components, that is mua (buy) and bán (sell); both mua and bán have their meanings and they have the same level of meaning when they stand by each other to create a compound.

  • Subordinate compounds are formed by two morphemes, one of them modifies the other like xe đạp (bicycle), xe máy (motorcycle), xe hơi (car), xe lửa (train)... Subordinate compounds have two components, that is accessory component and the other is the principal component. The accessory component acts as the modifier for the principal component. For example, the compound xe đạp has the accessory component đạp which modifies the principal component xe and which tells us how to operate xe. Lets take another example, in the word “cà chua”, “chua” is the accessory element that modifies “”. So “cà chua” is a kind of “” and its feature is “chua”.

  • Isolated compounds do not form systems. Such compounds as mè nheo (bother with requests), thiêu thân (May fly), tai hồng (a part of bicycle)…belong to this type of compounds. This type of compound is not very popular in Vietnamese language nowadays.

Like English compounds, Vietnamese compounds are also divided into compound nouns, compound verbs, compound adjectives.
    1. Compound nouns

Vietnamese compound nouns are in some ways the same as English compound nouns. They are made up of two components. However, it’s quite difficult to distinguish between noun phrases and compound nouns in Vietnamese because Vietnamese has no stressed – syllables so each component of a compound is spoken out equally.

For example:

Compound: Hoa hồng thì đẹp
( A rose is beautiful)

Phrase: Hoa hồng thì đẹp.

( A pink flower is beautiful).

Vietnamese vocabulary includes a large range of borrowed words from other languages, especially Chinese. Compound nouns in Vietnamese are mostly created base on Chinese words. Compound nouns can be two Han Viet words in which their meaning is independent of each other such as sơn hà, giang san…or two or more Han Viet words in which one word has the main meaning, the other modifies principal meaning like thiên thư, thạch mã, ái quốc, hàng không mẫu hạm, Nam quốc sơn hà

Besides, Nôm words can be used in this situation. We have compounds consisting two Nôm words with general meaning like bát đĩa, nhà cửa, ruộng vườn…Another way of forming compound nouns is to combine one word and one idiomatic phrase like kẻ rày đây mai đó”, “bọn mãi quốc cầu vinh…(Văn Phạm Việt Nam 1992).

Vietnamese belongs to the group of isolating languages where there are no inflectional endings (- s/es; - ed, - ing …) and all the words are invariable. Grammatical relationships are expressed not by changing the internal structure of the words but by the use of auxiliary words (những, các, nhiều, một, hai, ít; đã, đang, sẽ…) and word order.

In English, when you want to change a compound noun into plural, the main noun will take the “s”. For example, when you want to change “mother-in-law” into plural, the main noun mother will take the plural “s”, so we have mothers-in-law. Another example is passer-by, we make it plural by add “s” to passer, we have plural passers-by. However, in Vietnamese, when you want to change a compound noun into plural form, what you need to do is just to add the words like những, các, nhiều in front of that compound such as bạn and các bạn.

In addition, while Vietnamese is a syllable-timed language in which the rhythm appears to be fairly even, with each syllable has the same duration and force as others, English is stress-timed language in which stressed syllables recur at intervals. Consequently, compound nouns in English usually tend to have more stress on the first part of the compound like GREENhouse or MOTHER-in-law whereas Vietnamese compounds have equal stress for individual words in a compound. Besides, the way we divide the sentence in Vietnamese also makes the meaning of that sentence different while that’s not the case with English.

For example:

  • Thức đêm / nhiều người gầy đi thấy rõ. ( Staying up at night makes many people become thin)

  • Thức đêm nhiều / người gầy đi thấy rõ. (Staying up at night a lot make our body become thin).
    1. Compound adjectives

Another type of compounds in Vietnamese is compound adjectives. To form a compound adjective, there are many ways and it’s quite similar to the formation of English compound adjectives:

  • Adj + adj: xinh đẹp, cao lớn, to béo, đắng cay, ngay thẳng, mau chóng, khôn ngoan, ngu đần

  • Adj + noun: méo miệng, to gan, cứng đầu, cứng cổ, ngắn ngày, vàng chanh

  • Adj + verb: khó hiểu, dễ hiểu, chậm hiểu, dễ coi, khó nói

  • Partial reduplication: sạch sẽ, may mắn, chậm chạp, nhanh nhẹn, đắt đỏ

Especially, in Vietnamese, there are a pattern of adjective compounds to describe the colors. For example, with only one color đen, we have đen bóng, đen giòn, đen kịt, đen nhánh, đen sì, đen ngòm, đen thui In comparison with the word black, the other types of black have a more specific meaning and this layer of meaning makes the sentence more “ beautiful” especially in literature works.

Let’s take some examples:

Cốm không phải là thức quà của người vội; ăn cốm phải ăn từng chút ít, thong thả và ngẫm nghĩ. Lúc bấy giờ ta mới thấy thu lại cả trong hương vị ấy, cái mùi thơm phức của lúa mới, của hoa cỏ dại ven bờ…”

( Thạch Lam )

Góc sân nho nhỏ mới xây

Chiều chiều em đứng nơi này em trông

Thấy trời xanh biếc mênh mông

Cánh cò chớp trắng trên sông Kinh Thầy.

(Trần Đăng Khoa)

Although this kind of compound has more limited meaning than the original meaning of the original color, it’s extremely difficult to translate it into English because in English, we have color adjective compounds like in Vietnamese, but it’s different. In English, we can combine dark – blue and reddish – orange to create compounds with different layer of meanings. In Vietnamese, although biếc is not a kind of color, it creates effects when we combine it with the color blue, it creates physical image meaning of the compound. This is a very special and unique feature of Vietnamese.

Here are some of the patterns concerning borrowed words:



Hán Việt + Hán Việt

anh hùng, thanh nhã, chính trực

Hán Việt (major) + Hán Việt (minor)

ái quốc, hiếu hòa

Hán Việt (minor) + Hán Việt (major)

vô lễ, phi nghĩa, bất hiếu

Nôm + Nôm (equal meaning)

tươi tốt, êm dịu, khỏe mạnh

Hán Viet idiomatic phrases

(thái độ) mục hạ vô nhân

Nôm idiomatic phrases

(câu nói) hàng tôm hàng cá


(tư tưởng) quốc gia, (hoạt động) văn hóa


(Bùi Đức Thịnh 1992: 87 - 89
tư tưởng) tiến bộ, (hành động) phản bội

    1. Compound verbs

Another type of compounds in Vietnamese is compound verbs. Like English, there are many ways to construct a compound verb:



Hán Việt + Hán Việt

khích lệ, quan sát

Hán Việt adjective/ noun + hóa

công nghiệp hóa, giản dị hóa

Nôm verb + Nôm verb

buôn bán, thương yêu, ăn ở

Nôm verb (major) + Nôm verb (minor)

đánh lừa, nói thách, ăn xin

verb + noun

đánh bạc, hành tội, biết ơn

verb + adjective

làm giàu, làm kiêu

verb + adverb

vào trong, đi ra, ăn ngoài

verb phrase

nói đi nói lại, dặn đi dặn lại


cờ bạc, rượu chè


lớn, ngược

idiomatic phrases

giương đông kích tây, rày đây mai đó

(Bùi Đức Thịnh 1992: 87 - 89)

In English, compound verbs is very similar to phrasal verbs which makes it difficult for us to distinguish them. In Vietnamese, we face the same problem with compounds (từ ghép) and “cụm từ cố định” (collocations in English). “Cụm từ cố định” is an expression consisting of two or more words that correspond to some conventional way of saying things. “Cụm từ cố định” is fixed and has connotative meaning.

Some example of “Cụm từ cố định are: sinh viên, học tập, đỏ rực, ngon lành, hoa hồng…ăn ốc nói mò, mặt trái xoan, vênh váo như bố vợ phải đấm

How to distinguish “từ ghép” and “cụm từ cố định”?

Firstly, while compounds are formed by combining morphemes together like: ễnh + ương = ễnh ương, collocations are formed by combining words together like: bán + bò + tậu + ễnh + ương = bán bò tậu ễnh ương.

Secondly, about meaning, “cụm từ cố định” has meanings which reveal the physical image in reader’s mind ( từ mang tính hình tượng). That way, readers can’t fully understand the meaning of “cụm từ cố định” through the meanings of each word. For example, we have many words like: anh hùng rơm, đồng không mông quạnh, tiếng bấc tiếng chì… Readers can understand compounds’ meaning through its components because they just have denotative meanings.

In English, in the words of Firth (1957: 181): “Collocations of a given word are statements of the habitual or customary places of that word.” Collocations include noun phrases like strong tea and weapons of mass destruction, phrasal verbs like to make up, and other stock phrases like the rich and powerful. Particularly interesting are the subtle and not – easily - explainable patterns of word usage that native speakers all know: why we say a stiff breeze but not a stiff wind (while either a strong breeze or a strong wind is okay), or why we speak of broad daylight (but not bright daylight or narrow darkness).

Teaching implication

  • Firstly, it is common that most students tend to transfer their mother tongue into the target language. This can lead to misunderstanding due to differences in many aspects between two languages. By analyzing the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese compounds, we can help students to have a clear distinction between them about word order, formation and meaning so that they can avoid making mistakes.

  • Secondly, teachers should keep in mind that compounding is an interesting linguistic phenomenon in both meaning and phonology. As a result, students tend to learn these words quickly and easily with high motivation. Compounding can be used to design some language games as a warm-up or review activities.

  • Finally, the knowledge of Vietnamese and English compounds also helps students to develop linguistic skills in both languages. Contrastive knowledge in students’ mother tongue and the target language somehow also gives them a clear distinction in order not to make misunderstanding transference.


Compound is an interesting feature of both English and Vietnamese language. Although there are some similarities between English and Vietnamese compounds, the differences are much more. Hope that this review will make it easier for you to remember and avoid making mistakes when dealing with compounds. Finally, learning English requires time and patience. I believe if you try your best, you can become anyone you want to become, especially an excellent English user and the same for Vietnamese. Don’t forget your mother tongue. One thing you need to remember as a teacher-to-be is “When you plan a journey from your mind into mine, remember to allow for the time difference” (Ashleigh Brilliant).


Plag, Ingo. Morphological Productivity . United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003

Tu trong tieng Viet. Retrieve December, 20, 2009, from:

Ho, Le.(2003)Vấn đề cấu tạo từ của tiếng Việt hiện đại. Khoa học xã hôi Press, Nguyen Hoa Lac. An outline of morphology. University of Education Press

Nguyen, Thien Giap.(1978) Từ vựng học tiếng Việt. DHTH Ha Noi Press

Vietnamese compounds retrieved from:


English compounds retrieved from:


Compounds in poetry retrieved from:


Binh Nhu Ngo, PhD. Elementary Vietnamese. East Asian languages and Civilizations Department, Harvard University.


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