CritiqueMatch is a platform where writers and beta readers connect and exchange work for free! New: You can also buy a critique or beta-reading service from our top-rated users!

Jun 7, 2021

A Writer’s Consideration of Compound Words

By Sonia Easley. 

The flux of English compound words, whether open, closed, or hyphenated, suggests a dynamic interplay between culture and language. When working with compounds, you will come to appreciate the communication evolution.

Let’s begin this consideration of compounds with a few definitions:
A compound forms by combining two or more factors.
A compound word combines two or more words to set up a new meaning.
            - Examples are yard sale, railway, and father-in-law.
An open compound word is two or more words with spaces between them.
    - Examples are cell phone, jumping jack, and hand towel.
A closed compound word is two or more words without spaces.
    - Examples are afternoon, wildcat, and football.
A hyphenated compound word is two or more words with hyphens between them.
    - Examples are king-size, clean-cut, and follow-up.

Open Compound Words
In printing or writing, an open compound combines two or more words with a space between them that produces a term with new meaning.
Examples are real estate, seat belt, and energy drink.
In the compound word real estate, the meaning is neither real nor estate but a new meaning created by combining the words.

Closed Compound Words
In printing or writing, a closed compound combines two or more words with no spaces or no hyphens between them. As with open and hyphenated compound words, the original words have different meanings, and they merge to make fresh, current terms.
Examples are jigsaw, peanut, and upperclassman.

Hyphenated Compound Words
In printing or writing, the hyphenated compound includes a hyphen between two or more words of different meanings to create a new meaning.
Examples are well-to-do, tip-off, and high-tech.
Well, to, and do have different meanings, but linked as well-to-do, they mean wealthy.
What’s a writer to do? 
Thousands of words change over to open, closed, and hyphenated status each year. Two words, awesomesauce and lizard brain, appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. You won’t find them in Webster’s yet—but maybe next year.
Memorizing compounds is impractical, so don’t even try!
What’s the sensible answer to the problem? First, find the compound words in your written script. Second, use your favorite dictionary and reference each one. Third, be consistent in how you use these words in your present writing project.

Go to “Find” in Microsoft Word or your software program and select the hyphen symbol. Your typed hyphen should not have a space on either side of the mark. Microsoft Word will highlight the hyphenated words in your written piece. Reference these compounds in your designated dictionary and apply their correct and present status throughout your document or script. 
As an added suggestion for necessary changes, Word offers the Find and Replace computer program tool.
Locate your compound adjectives, verbs, and nouns within your written piece. And yes, it’s time-consuming, but it’s worth the effort. First, look for compound adjectives. Next, search for compound verbs. Then, find compound nouns.

Notice if you have an adjective and a noun together. Take, a sample, living room. The adjective living and the noun room become a new compound noun: living room (not livingroom or living-room). 
Reference compounds in your designated dictionary for accuracy and change your work when necessary.
Note that it’s easier to tackle word research as you write than to go through your project after you’ve finished—especially if you’re working on a book!

Find closed compound words (sorry, no shortcut tips here). Examples are firemen, sailboat, and wildcat.
Follow through with your designated dictionary. You might find, for instance, that wellbeing should be well-being according to your source.

Each referenced source may have its unique compound-word list. Resources could include Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary, Chicago Manual of Style, Microsoft 365 Office, writing software, the internet, business style manuals, agents, editors, and publishers.

Rules to Count On
Follow these rules with hyphenated compounds:
1) Hyphenate compound adjectives when they come before the nouns. Examples are black-and-blue arm, good-looking man, and ill-fated hiker.
2) Do not hyphenate compound adjectives when they come after the noun.
      Two examples are
The partnership is long term.
This apartment building is dog friendly.
3) Consider a compound age when it acts as a noun. 
Here are two examples:
The twenty-five-year-old graduated from college.
Sixty-five is my favorite number.
Hyphenate an age that comes before the noun. 
Consider these examples:
The seventy-five-year-old dentist retired. 
Carla is celebrating her twenty-first birthday.
Do not hyphenate an age that comes after the noun. 
Note these examples:
Emma is three years old. (The compound acts like an adjective.)
However, Emma is a three-year-old. (The compound acts as a noun.)
4) Do not hyphenate a compound phrase when an adverb ending in -ly pairs with an adjective. Here is an example: The newly married couple took a honeymoon cruise.
5) Hyphenate words to prevent confusion. Example: I’ll re-press my wrinkled dress before my interview.
      Unhyphenate words with a different meaning. Example: My psychiatrist says I repress my emotions.
6) Hyphenate words to connect a prefix to a capitalized word. 
post-World War II
7) Hyphenate words when you join a prefix to a date. 
8) Hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine. 
9)   Hyphenate words when you combine a letter or number with a word. 
9) When you write out fractions, hyphenate them as adjectives but not as nouns.
      Examples of fraction adjectives:
Paul bought two-thirds acre of land
Jane shared one-fourth of her inheritance with her daughter
      Example of a fraction noun: One fourth is one of four equal parts.

Hyphens are not dashes. Use an en dash (the width of an N) to show a range. Use an em dash (the width of an M) to set off or emphasize a word or phrase. A hyphen is shorter than either of these dashes and combines words.

Last Piece of Advice
Get original and conjure up your own compound words. Make sure you’re consistent and your target readers know your intended meanings of the terms.

Compounds include two or more words that create new meanings when joined.
Compound words may be open, closed, or hyphenated, depending on their use and place in a sentence and the reference you use. Be consistent.
Compounds emerge from countless combinations of speech. Use one source and look them up if you’re unsure of their format.
Compounds strengthen and grow according to the times and cultures.
Now—grab a dictionary or other references and enjoy your writing!
Reference: Merriam-Webster Dictionary


About the Author
Sonia Easley has far-ranging interests, insatiable curiosity, and impressive creativity, despite her grounded career in medical science. These passions have inspired her to write of spirituality, the heart-tugging adventures of a boy during World War II, and the psychologically and sometimes physically challenging travails of a university professor trapped in a mystery on the Big Island of Hawaii. In varying degrees, these storylines draw upon her rich life experiences. She’s currently diving into her fifth book, the story of Lily, an eighty-year-old woman.
The author lives and writes in Southern California.
You can find her books here