We all use compound words on a regular basis. Compound just means that each word is made up of two or more stand-alone words. Airport. Ballroom. Fingernail. Henchmen.
Compound words are lovely things. They let you be clear and descriptive. But they can present a challenge.
Should compound words be:
- Smushed together into one word?
- Left to stand alone as two words?
The best way to determine how a specific compound word should be treated is to look it up in the dictionary. (This is one area where it really is better not to trust Microsoft Word’s grammar and spelling tools.) If you don’t have an actual dictionary lying around, go to dictionary.com or a similar site.
But what should you do if the particular compound word you’re looking for isn’t in the dictionary?
Here are a few rules of thumb to help you make an educated guess about your compound word.
Together as one word (Closed Compound)
Most common for nouns, but some adjectives and adverbs appear this way as well. Follow the dictionary for guidance.
EXAMPLES: “The outcome was clear.” “We hit the jackpot.” “I hate doing paperwork.”
Stand alone as two words (Open Compound)
If the compound word doesn’t appear in the dictionary or match up with the other rules here, it’s safest to leave it as two words.
EXAMPLES: “I need to stop at the post office.” “My favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate.” “I am a member of the middle class.”
Hyphenated Compound Words
Use a hyphen to connect the two words when they are being used together to describe something.
EXAMPLES: “The sweet-smelling perfume wafted through the air.” “She was a part-time teacher.”
However, in general, do not use a hyphen when the two words appear after a noun or verb.
EXAMPLE: “She taught part time.”
However, you should not use a hyphen when connecting an adverb ending in “-ly” to an adjective.
EXAMPLE: “The quickly moving car zoomed past us.”
However, you might also want to use a hyphen if its absence causes confusion.
EXAMPLES: “Our re-creation of the original scene went smoothly.” versus “The best place for recreation is the beach.”
There are many more nuances regarding compound words, but this should cover the most common issues and get you going on the right path. Happy compounding!
Rachel is a full-on, hardcore grammar freak. Her favorite punctuation marks are parentheses, em dashes and ellipses. She still loves adverbs, but is trying to wean herself off of them. And she truly believes that it’s okay to split an infinitive. In addition to her grammar obsession, Rachel writes light contemporary romance – occasionally with a paranormal twist – and is published in short fiction.