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.’