Friday, April 4, 2008

On Better Writing . . .

The Pitfalls
of Compound Words

A compound word joins two or more words to express a single thing and can be a source of anxiety for careful writers. How do we know when to spell them as as separate words ("open" compound words), hyphenated, or as one word ("closed" compound words)?

One clue for correct spelling is how a word is pronounced. If the stress is clearly on the first syllable (workday, healthcare, bedspread, and pitfall), the compound is more likely to be closed. If the words carry the same stress, the compound is more likely to be open (ball game, iron ore). Compounds containing human suffixes, like man, woman, or person, are usually closed (policewoman, fireman, and busboy; but note the exception, flower girl).

The combination of an adjective and a noun is usually open, as in hot pad and deep freeze, except when the combination takes on a meaning distinct from the two words used, as in blueprint and drywall. When a noun is joined with a preceding preposition or adverb, the compound is usually closed, as in upswing, downtown, and underwear. But when the independent meaning is weaker, the compound is typically open, as in down payment.

Finally, when words are of equal importance, use a dash (writer-philosopher, secretary-treasurer, foot-pounds). Also, when the noun is joined with a gerund, the compound is usually hyphenated (charity-giving and house-raising), but note the closed terms such as lawmaking and housecleaning.

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