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An old furniture salesman or an old-furniture salesman?

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.

This is obviously a little-used bike

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:

A smartly dressed woman

Compounds in English

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 noon), 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.)

OPEN COMPOUNDS

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:

apple piehalf sister
coffee muginformation technology
computer networklight year
couch potatoliving room
database designmaster bedroom
decision makerorange juice
dinner tablepost office
English teacherswimming pool
evening dresstruck driver
football stadiumvideo game
full moonwashing machine
Two adults hiking in the Julian Alps in Slovenia on their way to the highest peak, Triglav.
An open compound: Mountain climbers

CLOSED COMPOUNDS

The following are examples of compounds written in one word:

afternoonmakeup
airportnewspaper
blackboardnotebook
bodyguardonline
bookstorepaycheck
cupcakepolicewoman
cowboyskateboard
doorbellsubstandard
downtowntakeaway
footballtextbook
grandmotherunderworld
handoutwallpaper
headachewatermelon
inputworksheet

Compounds with words from Latin or Greek are written as one word:

photography

agriculture

HYPHENATED COMPOUNDS

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):

broad-mindedrunner-up
check-insecretary-general
dry-cleaningself-esteem
far-reachingsix-pack
go-betweenwell-being
passer-byX-ray

Compounds with three or more words are usually written with hyphens:

around-the-clockmerry-go-round
do-it-yourselfmother-of-pearl
editor-in-chiefright-of-way
father-in-lawjack-of-all.trades
happy-go-luckystate-of-the-art

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:

anti-intellectual

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.

You can read about compounds as modifiers here.

Do you cooperate or collaborate?

Most writers either use these two words indiscriminately or simply choose cooperation without even reflecting on the alternative collaboration.

The main difference between the two words is that collaboration involves people working together towards a shared goal, while cooperation implies somebody working to support somebody else’s goal.

Two small boys are putting stones into a box.
Collaborating towards a common goal

As a copyeditor, I work with the author of a text. The author wants me to make sure the manuscript is in fluent English without any linguistic or factual errors. (You can read here about how I work.) The author may ask for comments on a certain passage and I may want clarification of what the author intends. I can suggest an alternative formulation. Our shared objective is an article that deals with an interesting topic, has perfect language and format and is of such a quality altogether that it can be accepted for publication. That is collaboration. Collaboration is teamwork requiring mutual respect, trust and adaptability.

In my job as a copyeditor I may come across a word that is totally unknown to me. I can then call an expert to ask about that word. For example, I once called the coast guard to ask what word they used in a certain context. Thanks to their cooperation I could achieve my goal – to use that word correctly.

Should you have a hyphen or not? The answer is here.

Perhaps some writers hesitate to use the word collaboration since it has a less agreeable connotation. A collaborator is someone who helps an enemy that has occupied their country in a war.

Co-operate or cooperate?

Co is a prefix, a syllable placed before a word. The word prefix itself is made up of the prefix pre (meaning before) and the word fix (meaning attach).

The prefix co (and its alternative forms con, com, col and cor, depending on which letter follows the prefix) has the meaning with, together with.

A prefix is usually not followed by a hyphen. Some examples:
Afterthought, antedate, biannual, collaborate, commemorate, confederation, displace, ensure, illegal, indirect, overuse, posttraumatic, prepaid, replace, submarine, underestimate, uninterested.

So you are right in leaving out the hyphen in words such as cooperate, collaborate and coordinate.

A grandfather is helping his grandson with a toy car
Cooperation

However, in some cases a hyphen is to prefer, since otherwise the spelling might suggest a different pronunciation:

If you write co-opt without a hyphen (coopt), it looks as if it could be pronounced with a vowel as in too, and re-edit, when written reedit might sound like read it. The same pronunciation issue would apply to, for example, re-enter, re-establish, and re-examine.

Some words with the prefix re- have two versions, one with and one without a hyphen:

When you re-sign a document, you sign it again, but when you resign, you quit a job.
To re-cover means to cover again, while recover is to get better, regain your health.
When you re-store goods, you put them back in store again, but to restore something means to reconstruct or bring back to a former state.

And, since we are dealing with English, we have to accept inconsistencies like the following:

Anti-clockwise, anti-hero and anti-Semitism but antirust, antiseptic and antisocial.
Vice President of a state; vice president or vice-president in business.
Viceroy but vice-chancellor.

A last note: Instead of writing cooperate, you could consider writing collaborate. There is a difference between the two!

How to use the semicolon

Many writers seem to be unsure of how to use the semicolon.

A semicolon
A combination of a comma and a full stop

The semicolon looks like a combination of a full stop and a comma, and that is an indication of how it is used. Like the comma and the full stop, the semicolon separates clauses. The semicolon links two independent clauses that are closely related. In other words, we use a semicolon between two complete sentences to indicate that what they say is of equal importance. The semicolon can replace words such as and and but.

Finally, Tom found his bike behind the garage; it was rusty and the tires were flat.
This method is based on many years of research; particularly important are the findings from four studies in the heavy vehicles industry.
The potential variables are numerous; they include everything that might influence the evaluation criteria.

You cannot have a semicolon after a dependent clause beginning with words such as since, although, when, because, etc.

Since she had visited the city several times, she knew all the tourist spots.
She had visited the city several times; she knew all the tourist spots.

To avoid confusion, use a semicolon to separate groups in an enumeration.

Among the cities in the study were Hamburg, Germany; Milan, Italy; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Helsinki, Finland.

Don’t use the semicolon where you must have a colon!

He had three main interests: vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

You cannot write *He had three main interests; vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture (For the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text). After a semicolon there must be a complete, independent, clause with a subject and a verb. So you could write: He had three main interests; they were vintage cars, whisky and antique furniture.

Disinterested or uninterested?

Are you disinterested or are you uninterested? If you are not sure about the difference between those two words, you are not alone. Many writers find it difficult to distinguish between them.

DISINTERESTED

If you are disinterested, you have no stake in the actual matter, you are impartial or neutral. It is understandable that this word is often used in legal or business contexts.

Can we take it for granted that the judge in this case is truly disinterested?

UNINTERESTED

You should use uninterested if you mean that someone is bored or not engaged.

How can we catch the attention of uninterested students?

Uninterested?

Chances are that you will find disinterested used where you would expect uninterested. Not surprisingly, the two words are often confused. But you, as a good writer of English, will of course make the distinction.

Furthermore and moreover

Furthermore and moreover are often understood as synonyms. However, there is a difference in meaning between them.

FURTHERMORE

Use furthermore when you add something to what you just said.

Earlier research has shown that this applies to several sectors. Furthermore, this has been confirmed in our interviews.

MOREOVER

Use moreover to indicate that you add something beyond what has been said, something different. Sometimes moreover could be said to mean ”further and more importantly”.

Using your cellphone while driving is against the law in some countries. Moreover, you risk your own life and that of others.

Sunset behind a town on a hilltop
The sunset was magnificent. Moreover, the whole day had been fantastic with walks in the narrow streets and a gorgeous lunch in the old town.

Furthermore and moreover are transitional words. Transitional words (or transition words) are used to describe relationships between ideas, to help the reader progress from one idea to the next. They can, for example, express addition (also, and, besides, further, likewise, again), contrast (but, however, on the contrary), time (after, before, usually, finally), space (above, below, behind, opposite), details (especially, particularly) and consequence (therefore, hence, consequently, because).

To sum up:
Furthermore (in addition to what has been said) adds information.

Moreover (beyond what has been said) builds up the argument, ”not only that”, adds a reason of a different kind, adds to diversity, ”more importantly”.

Sensible and sensitive

Here you will learn the difference between sensible and sensitive, two words coming from the same Latin root but with very different meanings.

SENSIBLE

If you are sensible, you have common sense, you are reasonable and have good judgement. You don’t make stupid mistakes.

Be sensible! Your chances of winning the lottery are close to nil.

Used about clothes, shoes or other things, sensible can mean practical, functional, not fashionable.

Bob’s wife understood his love for fast sports cars but managed to talk him into buying a sensible car that could accommodate their big family.

A man is cycling on a river wearing sensible weatherproof clothing
Make sure you wear sensible clothing when cycling on the river!

SENSITIVE

A sensitive person can be easily affected or upset by what others say or do.

Why are you so sensitive to criticism?

Being sensitive can also mean that you are understanding and sympathetic to other people’s needs.

As a good mother she was always sensitive to her children’s needs.

Used about things, sensitive means delicate or fragile, easily damaged, needing protection.

A baby’s skin is very sensitive to sunlight.
This is sensitive information.

The corresponding nouns are sensibility and sensitivity.

Big, large and great

Can you sort out big, large and great?

Generally speaking, big describes weight or extent, large is often related to dimensions or volume and great suggests something impressive. Great is often used with abstract nouns.

BIG

Big is used more often than large. In fact, big is one of the most frequent words in the English language. Big may also sound a little less formal than large.

They have a big mansion in the countryside.

Big often means important, powerful, successful:
That’s a big decision.
He is a big tycoon in the automotive industry.

Big can also mean older or elder:
My big brother has helped me a lot.

LARGE

As mentioned above, large often refers to dimension or volume.
They have a large house with a very large garden.
I have a large collection of posters from the 1960s.

A large black bird with its wings stretched out is silhouetted against the sky
A large bird or, if you like, a big bird

Large is more common with some quantity words such as the following:
A large amount
A large number
To a large extent
On a large scale
A large percentage
A large quantity

With food and clothes we use large:
I’d like a large coffee, please.
Those shoes are too large for you.

Large, not big, is used in the combination small, medium, large.

The expression at large has two meanings, 1) free, at liberty and 2) as a whole, in general:
The prisoner is still at large.
These findings relate to society at large.

Big and large are only used with countable nouns (read here about countable and uncountable nouns).
You cannot talk about *big traffic or *large traffic (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text). Instead we use heavy traffic, intense traffic or a lot of traffic.

Big and large often overlap in meaning when we talk about size.
A big house.
A large house.

It is sometimes said that big implies an element of emotion, surprise, etc., especially in fixed expressions such as the following:
Big deal!
She’s a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
He’s a big liar.

A big-headed man is not the same as a large-headed man! A big-headed man thinks he is more important or cleverer than others, while a large-headed man just has a large head.

Susan is my big sister – she is older than me.
Susan is my large sister – she is physically larger than my other siblings.

GREAT

Great implies a large size:
All creatures great and small.

Great often means distinguished, remarkable:
She is one of the greatest novelists of our time.
The performance was a great success.
I have great respect for her abilities.
He has great wisdom.
My cousin is really great at tennis.

To vary your language, you should use synonyms. In a dictionary of synonyms you will find many words to describe size or importance, such as huge, enormous, sizeable, impressive, momentous, substantial, comprehensive, extensive, immense, tremendous, prominent, distinguished, etc.

How the English language changes

A language is a living organism that constantly changes. Words often take on another meaning over time.

Let me give you an example:

HOTHOUSE

Originally this word meant a heated building, usually made of glass, used to grow plants.

This is what it still means today, but the word is now also used figuratively referring to a place or situation with intense activity, usually to promote the development of somebody or something.

New York in the 1940s was a hothouse of artists and intellectuals.
For decades the palace was a hothouse of intrigue.

Hothouse can also be used as a verb meaning to train a child intensively in sport, music, academic work, etc. This often has a negative connotation.

The articles imply that women are hothousing their children when they are simply trying to do the best they can for their families.

While walking to school a father is checking his daughter's knowledge to see if she has done her homework
Are we hothousing our children?

So here we see a change in meaning from something good – promoting the growth of plants – to something negative – disapproval of the way some parents train their children.

A word related to hothouse is hotbed, which originally also had to do with the growing of plants. When used figuratively, hotbed especially in British English usually refers to an unwanted or unpleasant activity.

The village had turned into a hotbed of disease.

Can you think of other English words that have taken on a completely new and different meaning?

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