Compound Words: A Proofreading Pitfall

By Janis Butler Holm

You’ve eyeballed your poem, story, or article, run your spelling checker program, and tested your friends’ devotion by requiring them to read this latest masterpiece. Now you’re ready to submit it for publication. Right?

Maybe. But are you sure about your spelling? What about those little problems that spelling checkers can’t find? What about compound words that require hyphens? What about compound words that should be one word instead of two?

English spellings, though they sometimes follow simple rules (“I” before “E” except after “C,” etc.), just as often reflect their accidental evolution in a living, changing language system. Or they may generally follow a set of logical principles, but the number of exceptions to those principles makes learning the rules an almost pointless exercise. Such is the case with the spellings for compound words, many of which defy our commonsense expectations of consistency. (Dictionaries give us “grandaunt” but “great-aunt,” “hardheaded” but “hard-hearted,” “night table” but “nightstand.” We must “hand-feed” but “handpick,” be “house-proud” but “house poor,” spend a “half-dollar” or a “half hour.”)

Recent editions of THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE include a fairly extensive set of rules for spelling compound words, a multipage reference chart that provides answers to any number of usage questions. Here we can find that noun + noun combinations are generally hyphenated (“author-critic,” “city-state”) and that the name for a “grand” relative is always spelled as one word (“grandniece,” “grandfather”). We can learn that “quasi” noun compounds are spelled as two words (“quasi union,” “quasi contract”) but that adjectival “quasi” compounds are hyphenated (“quasi-judicial,” “quasi-stellar”). However, other rules are more complex, and few writers will want to memorize the numerous guidelines that appear here in small print. And the lists of exceptions are not comprehensive, which means that, in many cases, the writer will need ultimately to consult a dictionary in order to be sure of the correct spelling.

To complicate matters further, Internet usage has generated a legion of new compound words. Though you can find these in various versions on the Net, lexicographers (dictionary editors) seem to be favoring one-word spellings, as in “cyberspace,” “email,” “homepage,” “hyperlink,” “newsgroup,” “online,” and “username.” But they also seem to have settled on “Web site” instead of “website,” so it is clear that the one-word form will have its exceptions. Just as for older compound words, careful writers will be checking their dictionaries.

Are there any shortcuts when it comes to checking compound word spellings? Given the frequency of compound words in English and their extraordinary variety, the answer is, unfortunately, no. Unless you have a day job as an orthographer, as a professional scholar of letters and spelling, the chances are good that you’ll need to consult a dictionary when proofreading copy that includes compound words. While spelling checkers can find two-word compounds mistakenly written as one, and while orthographic rules can generate good guesses, the dictionary remains the best and final authority.

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