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What Is an Endocentric?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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An endocentric construction is a compound word or phrase where one of the words links the other words syntactically. This linking word is called the ‘head,’ and if the head is removed from the phrase, compound or collocation, then so is the meaning. The rest of the phrase, apart from the head, is optional and can be removed without losing the basic meaning. The opposite of an endocentric construction is an exocentric construction.

The endocentric word of a noun phrase is the most important word contained within the phrase. The head word relates to and confers meaning with the rest of the words comprising the phrase. For example, in “three little pigs,” the word ‘pigs’ is the head word. ‘Pigs’ relates to ‘little’ to make ‘little pigs’ and to ‘three’ to make ‘three pigs,’ but ‘little’ and ‘three’ do not relate to one another directly, as ‘three little’ makes no sense. In the phrase ‘dogs and demons,’ there are two head words, ‘dogs’ and ‘demons.’

In compound words, two words merge together to create a third word that combines attributes from both. For example, the stem word ‘board’ can be combined with ‘black’ and ‘white’ to make ‘blackboard’ and ‘whiteboard.’ The head word in the endocentric construction is ‘board’ as the colors merely modify the meaning of the head. Other examples of endocentric constructions in compounds include the ‘saw’ in ‘hacksaw’ and the ‘brush’ in ‘hairbrush.’

Collocations are word pairings where the words remain separate and not merged; however, by placing themselves next to one another, a third meaning is implied. The head word of the collocation is the word, if present, that directs the meaning. An example of this is the ‘house’ in ‘fun house’ or ‘mad house.’ Collocations such as ‘red herring’ indicate that the ‘herring’ is the head word, but by itself, the meaning is lost.

In theory, all phrases have a head word whether they are noun phrases or verb phrases. The head word indicates the overall meaning of the phrase, and without it, the words do not make syntactic sense. This is because all words in the phrase relate directly to the head word. Some phrases, such as coordinate constructions, have more than one head word.

The difference between endocentric and exocentric constructions is also usually the difference between phrases and clauses. In an exocentric construction, the words are not syntactically related, and so words can be removed and there will still be a meaning. Clauses that are exocentric include ‘we heard her.’

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Discussion Comments
By nony — On Jan 08, 2012

@Charred - Is it really true that the “head” word gives the overall meaning of the phrase? I can accept this in principle but what about a phrase like “ill will”? The head phrase here is “will.”

Does it suggest the overall meaning of the phrase? Can’t you have good will as well? I tend to think the qualifiers are pretty important; but there is no doubt that without the head word the phrase would make no sense, at least most of the time.

By Charred — On Jan 08, 2012

@NathanG - Which of the two do you think is more common in the English language, compound words or endocentric construction?

I think it’s hard to quantify this stuff easily personally, because you can’t look up endocentric constructions in a regular dictionary, whereas you would be able to look up compound words (because they represent one word).

Perhaps a phrase dictionary would help, but in either case, I’m willing to bet that the compound words are more common.

By NathanG — On Jan 07, 2012

I never heard about endocentric constructions or collocations when studying noun or verb phrases. Actually the terminology seems a bit heady for describing something so simple.

Basically you are talking about nouns and their qualifiers. We used to study this stuff a lot when we were diagramming sentences and things like that. It wasn’t exactly fun, but in hindsight, it has become very instructive as I’ve sought to polish my writing skills years later.

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