From the Common Sense Problem Page

Understanding Language

The Meaning of Noun Phrases

There are many ways in which the meaning of a two word noun phrase can be related to the meanings of the individual nouns, and syntax gives little indication of which applies in any given case. Some such phrases are purely idiomatic and must be individually learned (e.g. "tag sale," "mustard gas") but in most cases a speaker who has never seen the particular phrase can figure out its meaning from semantic constraints and commonsense knowledge.

Characterize the commonsense knowledge used in determining that the correct meaning of the following noun phrases is more plausible than any of the alternative readings:

  • water bird (a bird who lives near the water)
  • marble cake (a cake that looks like marble)
  • soda can (a can containing soda)
  • rock candy (candy as hard as a rock)
  • bank card (a card issued by a bank)
  • credit card (a card used for purchases on credit)
  • kitchen clock (a clock hung in the kitchen)
  • pocket computer (a computer that fits in the pocket)
  • ballet dancer (one who dances ballet)
  • toy dog (a small dog) or (a toy shaped like a dog)
  • doy toy (a toy played with by a dog)
  • research group (a group that does research)
  • clover honey (honey made by bees who feed on clover)
  • bike messenger (a messenger who rides a bike)
  • cargo plane (a plane used for carrying cargo)
  • jet plane (a plane powered by jets)
  • birthday present (present given to celebrate a birthday)
  • C program (a program written in C)
  • opera program (a program describing an opera)
  • computer program (a program that runs on a computer)
  • diet program (a program guiding a diet)
  • television program (a program shown on television)
  • engagement ring (a ring symbolic of an engagement)
  • nose ring (a ring worn in the nose)
  • sea salt (salt extracted from the sea)
  • power saw (a saw with electric power)
  • art school (a school that teaches art)
  • ice skater (one who skates on ice)
  • college student (a student attending college)
  • exchange student (a student who is part of an exchange program)
  • peach tree (a tree that bears peaches)
  • oak tree (an oak: An oak is a type of tree)
  • crystal vase (a vase made of crystal)
  • computer vision (vision by a computer)
  • ocean water (water from the ocean)

Contributed by Ernie Davis (, New York University, U.S.A. (19th September 1997)

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