Below: Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

English Plus+ News, June 1999

When Are Compound Words Spelled with Hyphens?

How Do You Know When to Use One?

Some compound words are almost always written as separate words. I think of words like dump truck or Christmas tree. Other words are recognized as single words. I think of words like bookkeeper or foghorn. Then there a number of words which are hyphenated. I think of words like mother-in-law or merry-go-round. How do we know when to hyphenate such compound words?

Some Basic Patterns
First of all, right off the top I must say that English is not completely consistent. The best solution is to look up the word in a good dictionary. If there is more than one spelling listed, you almost always do best to choose the first one. For example, many dictionaries list two spelling for bumblebee (bumble-bee). Bumblebee is listed first because it is the most widely used. Choose the second choice only if your audience uses it; for example, you may use it if it is a common regional variation and you are writing for the region that uses it.

Having said this, there are patterns that we can begin to see. Most often, compound words, unless they are quite old in origin, remain two words. If the roots have Germanic or widely used folk origins, the compound word is much more likely to be a single word. It is also more likely to be combined if it can meaning something else when divided into two words.

Long-Time Hyphenated Words
English at its root is a Germanic language. German and other similar languages commonly make compound words. The word fisherman, for example, is an older word. Both fish and man are Germanic. Both were in use before 1066 when the French-speaking Normans took over England and ended up greatly altering the language. The word fisherman was also in use before 1066. The modern term repo man is two words. It is a colloquialism; repo is short for repossession which is not Germanic in origin; it is also not as widely used.

Compound words that are consistently hyphenated tend to be those which have short words in the middle, especially words made up of more than two words. These are invariably hyphenated and probably will not change because of confusion when pronouncing them. These include words with in in the middle like mother-in-law and editor-in-chief. They also include such words as merry-go-round, aide-de-camp, and forget-me-not. These words have been spelled with hyphens for a long time, and I would be very surprised if you see changes.

The Use of Hyphens Has Become More Restricted
Hyphens were more widely used in the nineteenth century. Did you know, for example, that Herman Melville hyphenated the title of his most famous novel? He called it Moby-Dick. In many cases, the hyphens are no longer used. They either have gone back to be two words or have become one word. A lot of biological names that were hyphenated an no longer are. For example, the common North American woodland plant the May apple used to be hyphenated most of the time; nowadays, it seldom is.

A more recent example is the compound adjective solid state. When transistors and chips first began to replace tubes, it was two words. Often, as the term became more common, it would be hyphenated. However, the word is used a lot less than it was twenty years ago because nowadays virtually every electronic device is solid state. It is not used as often because there are fewer things to contrast it with. Since it is not used as widely any more, today we usually see it written as two words again.

Some of those nineteenth century words which were hyphenated have become single compound words. This is especially true if the words have become common, if they could cause confusion by not being hyphenated, or if they have and old English (i.e., Germanic) or folk origin. The word wetsuit, for example, fits all three categories. As SCUBA diving grew in popularity, the term became more well known. (So much so that many people do not realize that there is also a dry suit that divers can use). At first, the word was hyphenated. The hyphenating or combining the words helped readers distinguish between the rubber suit used by divers and a gentleman's wet clothing. The term also has a colloquial or folk origin, starting as divers' jargon. (Wet comes from Old English but suit is French, post-1066).

A Blue Bird is Not Necessarily a Bluebird
As the words became more common, blue-bird became bluebird and black-bird became blackbird. In both cases the compound means something different from the two words when they are written separately. As has been said many times, a crow is a black bird. A crow is not a blackbird. Another bird name, from folk origin, is the whippoorwill. It got its name because its call sounds something like "Whip poor Will." Older works usually have it hyphenated to emphasize this, but most newer works have dropped the hyphen because there is little confusion with pronunciation or with any other words. You can document a similar transformation with bobwhite, another bird name based on the bird's call.

Overall, hyphenated compound words are the exception, but they do follow some patterns. (I have deliberately avoided discussion of hyphenated adjectives and participles). Unless there is a strong reason to keep a hyphen, hyphens usually get dropped and the word either reverts to two words or is combined into a single word.

For more on specific rules concerning hyphens in compound words look up Hyphen under Punctuation in Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe. Our online Grammar Slammer notes these especially at and

Let's Correct the Textbooks

Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

This is the first of a series of guest editorials by retired English teacher Donald Hibbard.. English grammar terminology comes largely from Latin, and over the centuries there have been problems trying to fit English to a Latin mold. He may help us re-think some of the things we have learned--even some of the things in Grammar Slammer! Here is his first installment.

Part 1

The Latinists who first issued their pronouncements in early grammar textbooks established some faulty concepts that have persisted to this day. While we have learned to live with them, they have obscured the logic that should make the teaching and learning of English grammar easier and more understandable. For example, here are three faulty statements that have been accepted as fact for the past century or two:

  1. The predicate of a sentence includes complements such as the direct object. In fact, it contains everything but the complete subject.
  2. A participle is always used as an adjective.
  3. In the sentence, John loves Mary, John is the subject, loves is the verb.

Students have not necessarily been handicapped by learning these things incorrectly. They are not necessarily "bad grammar"; it's just that something else is better. These dieas prevent students and teachers from understanding the logic of how English grammar works. I would change these statements to:

  1. A sentence is composed of a subject, a predicate, and, as often as not, a complement.
  2. A participle, like an infinitive, is used as an adjective, a noun, or an adverb.
  3. In John loves Mary, John is the subject, and loves is the predicate. Since no word has a modifier, John is the simple subject, loves is the simple predicate, and Mary is the simple complement. Whether a complements is a direct object, an indirect object, a subject complement, or an object complement; a complement is a separate part of the sentence.

To be continued.

English Plus+ would like to thank Mr. Hibbard for his contributions. We hope to get some different perspectives on these things. One of the chief purposes of education, after all, is to get us to think. Mr. Hibbard is a retired teacher and U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel. He can be reached at

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