In an earlier blog post we looked at compounds and and noted that some are written with one or two hyphens. Here are a few examples:
Brother-in-law (your sister’s husband or your wife’s or husband’s brother) Runner-up (one who finishes in second place) Cul-de-sac (a street that is closed at one end) Editor-in-chief (the manager of an editorial staff)
How should you write the plural form of such compounds? The answer is fairly logical: add the plural -s to the main part of the compound, the significant part.
Brothers-in-law Runners-up Editors-in-chief
Cul-de-sac has two plural forms: culs-de-sac or cul-de-sacs
When we write the genitive form, the -s comes at the end when we talk about people:
My brother-in-law’s new car The editor-in-chief’s wife
However, you can also write
The wife of the editor-in-chief
When we talk about things, we use the genitive form with of:
Am I a copy editor or a copy-editor? Or perhaps a copyeditor?
First, what is a copyeditor? In publishing, copy means text. Consequently a copyeditor edits texts. However, one could argue that there is a difference between what, for example, a managing editor does and what a copyeditor does. Or, to quote Karen Judd, ”A copyeditor does not edit copy; a copyeditor copyedits copy”. You can read about how I work here.
Dictionaries differ in their recommendations. Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary have copy editor; The American Heritage Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style have copyeditor.
In book titles we can find both one and two words:
The Copyeditor’s Handbook (University of California Press) Carol Fisher Salter: The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (University of Chicago Press) Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press) Karen Judd: Copyediting: A Practical Guide (Crisp Publications) The Copy Editor newsletter changed its name to Copyediting newsletter.
As you can see from the URL of this site, I have settled for the one-word version copyeditor. One of the reasons is that my website address copyeditor.se looks better as one word; another reason is that many words beginning with copy are written as one word:
Copywriter, copydesk, copyright, copybook, etc.
There seems to be a trend for some compound words to go from two words via hyphenation to one word. A few examples:
proof reader – proof-reader – proofreader base ball – base-ball – baseball sub editor – sub-editor – subeditor ink well – ink-well – inkwell living room – living-room – livingroom
As always, the important thing is that you are consistent!
UPDATE June 2021: Debbie Emmitt brilliantly sums up the issue here.
As you could see here, most English compounds are not hyphenated. However, a hyphen is used when a compound is a modifier. A modifier changes or adds to the meaning of the word that follows. In the phrase That’s a big house, the word big is a modifier; it adds something to the concept house.
When the compound is a modifier, especially when it modifies a noun, we use a hyphen: This is a well-written article.
But there is no hyphen in the following sentence: I think the article is well written.
Here are some more examples:
They are five-year-old children. (Notice that there is no plural -s). The children are five years old.
He is a part-time mechanic. He works part time.
This is a long-term project. We must plan for the long term.
The hyphen often helps to clarify what the writer wants to say.
He is selling his little-used bike means that the bike has not been used much. He is selling his little used bike would mean that the bike is little (small) and has been used.
Do you understand the difference between a single family home and a single-family home? And between a small business owner and a small-business owner? Or an old furniture salesman and an old-furniture salesman?
We can leave out the hyphen if there is no risk for confusion:
I found a used car dealer.
An adverb ending in -ly is not followed by a hyphen:
When two or more words are combined to form a new concept with a new meaning, we talk about a compound.
A compound can be a combination of a noun and a noun (school nurse), an adjective and a noun (full moon), an adverb and a verb (far-reaching), a verb and an adverb (check-up), a preposition and a noun (underworld), a preposition and a verb (overestimate), an adjective and another adjective (blue-green) – and a few more combinations.
In English there are three ways to write compound words: as separate words (open compounds), as one word (closed compounds) or as words combined with a hyphen (hyphenated compounds). This can sometimes be rather confusing. We write head office as separate words, we write head-teacher with a hyphen and we write headmaster as one word. Likewise we have table knife but tablespoon.
This may seem frustrating, and if you are in doubt, you had better check a dictionary or a style sheet. (Actually, you can also write stylesheet. Some compounds can take any of the three forms. You can write life style, life-style or lifestyle.)
Unlike some other languages – German, Swedish or Finnish, for example – English often does not combine the separate words into one word. A breakfast table is in German Frühstückstisch; a hotel room is in Swedish hotellrum; a taxi driver is in Finnish taksinkuljettaja.
Here are some examples of open compounds in English:
The following are examples of compounds written in one word:
Compounds with words from Latin or Greek are written as one word:
Many compounds – especially those formed by two nouns – used to be hyphenated, but now most of them are written either as one word or two separate words. Here are some compounds that are still hyphenated (and you will notice that they are generally not of the noun+noun type):
Compounds with three or more words are usually written with hyphens:
Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated:
My dad is forty-two.
Fractions also take a hyphen:
We had already driven two-thirds of the way. Less than one-fifth of the operators are women.
But with a instead of one there is no hyphen:
Less than a fifth of the operators are women.
Some compounds have changed from being hyphenated to a single word. We used to write on-line and world-wide, but nowadays online and worldwide are more common. This also applies to words such as cooperate and proactive.
To avoid confusion, a hyphen is used when the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:
COMPUNDS AS MODIFIERS
When compounds are used as modifiers, they are written with a hyphen. A modifier works as an adjective or adverb to add information about the word directly following it.
A six-year-old boy. But: The boy was six years old.
We rely on just-in-time delivery. But: I arrived just in time. The clock struck three when I opened the door.
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