Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
The spelling of compound words is one of those not-so-sexy but majorly useful topics that writers should have a handle on. The right spellings can make manuscripts look good and help convey the correct meanings of our phrases.
Compound words can be open (separate words with spaces between them), closed (a single word, no spaces or hyphens), or hyphenated. While it’s easy to determine whether closed and open compounds are spelled correctly—simply look them up in a current dictionary—the task is a bit harder when you’re faced with hyphenated compounds. The problem here is that hyphenated words can be temporary spellings, hyphenated for the needs of a moment but not for every use. So just because you don’t find the hyphenated word in a dictionary, that doesn’t mean that you don’t hyphenate it. Words that are always hyphenated would be found in a dictionary.
A compound word is simply two or more words joined to create a new word with a meaning different from any of the individual words. There are compounds nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. A few examples—
health care provider
Words may begin as open compounds and over time evolve into hyphenated compounds and then to closed compounds. While spelling changes usually take time, some words do change quickly, typically as a function of their use. For example, email moved very quickly from a hyphenated compound—e-mail—to the current closed form. Another fast-changing compound was website. It changed from an open compound—Web site—to its current closed form.
If you have any doubt about the spelling of a compound, look it up. And that’s advice for both writers and editors. Writers, don’t count on your editor to look up every word, especially if your subject matter is unusual or if you make up a lot of words. Editors, don’t assume that writers have had the opportunity to look up every word. If you’re in doubt, pull out that dictionary.
Consider creating a general style sheet or spelling list not related to any particular book or project. If you find yourself looking up the same words for yourself or your clients, include those words on your style sheet. Keep the file open on your computer for easy access.
If you can’t find a word in your go-to dictionary, perhaps you spelled it wrong. On the other hand, it might be a temporarily hyphenated compound.
The temporary compounds are often the most difficult to deal with. Often these are adjectives or nouns that we create as we write or those that are hyphenated in some situations but not in others. Our job is to decide about the use of hyphens with such words.
Let’s look at an example.
Timothy is five years old.
There’s no unusual punctuation or spelling here; it’s very straightforward. But what of this next one?
Timothy is a five-year-old boy.
In this sentence Timothy’s age is a compound serving as an adjective for boy.
Here’s another example—
The doctor is good looking.
Another normal sentence. But with a slight change, we have—
She’s a good-looking doctor.
Our doctor isn’t a looking doctor, and she may not be a good doctor. She’s a good-looking doctor. Good and looking aren’t separate adjectives used to describe doctor; good-looking is the single modifier. The words are joined with a hyphen before the noun to ensure there’s no confusion about the meaning. After the noun, there’s usually less chance of a reader reading in the wrong meaning.
So how do you determine when compound adjectives should be hyphenated? There are rules. The most general rule is that you hyphenate for clarity. If not hyphenating a compound causes confusion—perhaps creates a phrase that could be read multiple ways—hyphenate. Or rewrite.
But other rules are more specific, and they can be tricky. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), however, has made our compounding task much easier by laying out categories and showing us rules for hyphenation.
Even better, the CMOS folks have put their handy chart online so that everyone can access it.
If you don’t have a copy of the current CMOS, I highly recommend that you bookmark or print this guide. I admit that I check this section in CMOS again and again when I edit.
The many examples should help with most of the situations you’ll encounter when deciding how to spell compound words. Yet don’t forget that checking the dictionary first may be a quicker path to your answer.
Long and Detailed Compound Adjectives
In fiction we often string together words to create unusual and one-off adjectives to be used before a noun. While you could use italics for an especially long compound adjective, hyphens can do the job much of the time.
Kyra gave me one of her patented I’m-going-to-pay-you-back-later glares.
He skittered away, his too-big-for-a-clown shoes flapping against the concrete.
If three or more words combine to create a single adjective, hyphenate them. Make sure you don’t put a hyphen between the final word of the adjective and the noun it modifies.
He skittered away, his too-big-for-a-clown–shoes flapping against the concrete. X
BrE and AmE
British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) hyphenation rules and suggestions differ in some respects.
BrE recommends hyphenating compound modifiers after a noun if one of the words in the compound is an adjective and the other a participle. So, given one of our earlier examples, in BrE you could write—
The doctor is good-looking.
This would be incorrect in AmE.
We used to find noun compounds hyphenated much more often than we do now. For whatever reason, BrE often turns those into open compounds while AmE makes them into closed compounds.
The point here is that while CMOS has a great list of rules and recommendations, not every recommendation will hold true for British English. New Hart’s Rules also contains a section on compounds; if you’re writing or editing according to BrE rules, check out Hart’s as well as CMOS.
Because there are so many options for hyphenating, I’ve put off writing what will probably end up being a series of articles on the topic. Yet I’m certain that the CMOS cheat sheet will answer many of your questions about the spelling of compound words.
Still, let’s look at a few rules for compounds that you may find useful.
~ Compound adjectives hyphenated before a noun are often open after a noun.
The bluish-gray smoke had me thinking about ghosts.
The smoke was bluish gray and had me thinking about ghosts.
~ Compound adjectives with -ly adverbs are not hyphenated.
The little girl found a newly minted penny on the sidewalk.
The little girl found a newly–minted penny on the sidewalk. X
There is an exception, however, when an -ly adverb is part of a longer phrase.
He used the ever-so-slightly-dirty napkin to clean his face.
~ A number followed by percent is always open.
His concoction was thirty percent chocolate.
~ Compounds with prefixes are almost always closed, but there are multiple exceptions. Check out the final section in the CMOS chart.
The midseason hurricane was a shock to even the forecasters.
It would be mid-June before the house would be finished.
~ Adjectives paired with participles (past and present) are hyphenated before nouns but open after (in AmE).
The coffee-colored stain wouldn’t come out of the carpet.
The stain in the carpet was coffee colored.
The acrid-tasting alcohol made me gag.
The homemade alcohol was acrid tasting.
~ It’s okay to omit the hyphen for common phrases that wouldn’t lead to confusion without its use.
One high school student quit a few months before graduation.
Once you decide on the spelling of a compound, be consistent throughout a project. A reader might never notice a misspelled word when it’s an open compound written as a closed one or a closed one written as a hyphenated one, but many readers might easily notice a closed compound on one page followed two pages later by the same word now hyphenated. Consistency can be a tool to keep the mechanics from standing out, from distracting from the story.
Use the CMOS cheat sheet to create consistent compounds.
Saturday, August 15, 2015, is the final day of the introductory price (7.99) for The Magic of Fiction.