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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

Here are some examples of open compounds:

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

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.

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.

I will write more about this in my next blog post.

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”.

Principal and principle

Principal and principle sound the same, yet they have different meanings.

PRINCIPAL

As an adjective, principal means the most important.
What’s the principal theme of the book?
Principal is also a noun, meaning leading person.
He is now principal of the school.

Oven in an industry with cement as its principal product
The principal product is cement

Principal can also refer to a sum of money on which interest is paid.
During the first years most of your payments go towards interest rather than principal.

PRINCIPLE

A principle is a rule or guideline.
The principle of subsidiarity and the principle of proportionality govern the exercise of the EU’s competences.
Einstein formulated the principle of general covariance.
I’ve always seen him as a man of principle.
”Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well I have others.” (Groucho Marx)

Than or then?

Than and then are often confused.

THAN

A landscape with a motorway in the foreground and mountains in the background against a blue sky
The weather is much nicer today than yesterday

Than is used mainly to introduce the second part of a comparison.
The weather is much nicer today than yesterday.
I’d rather go for a walk than sit in the garden.
Isn’t she taller than her brother?

But what about She is taller than he and She is taller than him?

Nowadays many linguists agree that than is both a conjunction and a preposition. As a conjunction it introduces a new clause, often only implied – She is taller than he [is], and as a preposition it is followed by the object form – She is taller than him.

However, we cannot always ignore the difference between the conjunction and the preposition. She likes my cousin better than I (with than as a conjunction) does not convey the same meaning as She likes my cousin better than me (with than as a preposition). The first sentence means She likes my cousin better than I like my cousin, whereas the second one means She likes my cousin better than she likes me.

As your copyeditor I would recommend that you use than as a conjunction (with the subject form) in formal writing such as a doctoral thesis or a paper for a scientific journal.

Than is also used with some adverbial expressions such as hardly, no sooner, scarcely.

No sooner had we settled down on the beach than a heavy rain started to fall. (Notice that the verb comes before the subject of the verb.)

THEN

Then refers to a point in time, either in the past or in the future.

He studied in Paris then.
By then, they had married and were expecting their first child.
We worked out at the gym and then we took a long swim.
First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin (Song by Leonard Cohen)
The door closes automatically at 10 p.m., so you must be back before then.
The then President Obama gave a passionate speech.

Supplement and complement – and compliment

Supplement and complement are used as nouns and verbs. The adjectives are supplementary and complementary.

SUPPLEMENT

Supplement as a verb means add to, increase.
She supplemented her salary by freelancing as a journalist.
The lecturer gave her students a handout to supplement the textbook.

It is also used as a noun.
After a few years the author felt that he had to write a supplement to his book.
Have you read the Sunday supplement? (Here supplement means an additional section of a newspaper.)
Many athletes use herbal supplements.

COMPLEMENT

Complement means complete, harmonise with, bring to perfection.
That tie really complements your suit.
Red wine and cheese complement each other.
Watching them together on the track through the forest I saw how well they complemented each other.

A drink with a few slices of lemon
The lemon taste complemented the drink

In mathematics, angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees and supplementary if they equal 180 degrees.

COMPLIMENT

Compliment as a verb means to praise, to express appreciation or admiration.
He complimented her on her new dress.

It is also used as a noun.
Every time someone calls me a nerd, I take it as a compliment.
The dinner was excellent. Give my compliments to the chef!

It’s or its?

Writers are sometimes not sure about when to write it’s or its.

IT’S
An apostrophe means that a letter has been left out (sometimes more than one letter).
It’s is the abbreviated form of it is (or sometimes it has).

It’s hard to believe that he is 14 years old (It is hard to believe…).
The book is very thick, but it’s really interesting (it is really interesting).
It’s been a long day (It has been a long day).
It’s got to be true (It has got to be true).

ITS
Its is the possessive form of the pronoun it.

Stockholm is known for its many islands.
The cat was licking its paw.

A grey cat licking its front paw
The cat was licking its paw

The simple rule is this: If you can say it is or it has, then the form with an apostrophe, it’s, is correct.

The head of a bear with its teeth showing
It’s frightening when the bear opens its massive jaws

The abbreviated form it’s should not be used in formal language – there you should write it is.

What is true about it’s and its also applies to you’re and your, they’re and their or who’s and whose.

Structure your text

As a non-native writer of English you are naturally influenced by your own language and culture. When you write in English for an academic or scientific journal, you should bear in mind the Anglo-American style. It is especially important how you structure your text.

The text should have a clear structure with a linear presentation of the main idea and sub-ideas. Scientific journal articles are usually structured according to what is abbreviated as IMRAD, referring to Introduction, Material and Methods, Results and Discussion. To facilitate understanding, each paragraph deals with one issue, and a set of paragraphs form a logical unit.

Sentences, too, must be clearly structured. The subject comes before the verb, and adverbs and adverb phrases begin or end a sentence.

Construction worker doing restoration work in the Forum Romanum, Rome, Italy
Structure

Writers from other cultures may be used to a different way of expanding on an idea; they may deviate from the topic, giving further examples and explanations, often in complicated sentences.

In some languages, adverb phrases can be inserted in the middle of a sentence, often breaking up verb forms or a verb and its object. This is not done in English, where the adverb phrase instead is put at the beginning or the end of the sentence.

Don’t write:
*The company has in Sweden 600 employees. (For the use of the asterisk * read at the end of this page.)
Write instead:
In Sweden the company has 600 employees.
Or:
The company has 600 employees in Sweden.

Don’t write:
*The technology is by some manufacturers expected to be dominant on the market within five years.
Write instead:
Some manufacturers expect the technology to be dominant on the market within five years.
This example also shows that it is better to change passive voice to active.

Some other Latin abbreviations in English

There are many abbreviations of Latin words in English, but most of the words behind those abbreviations are not used in English in their full form.

The following are some Latin abbreviations used in English:

a.m.ante meridiembefore noon
ca.circaabout
cf.confer(bring together) compare
c.p.caeteris paribusother things being equal
e.g.exempli gratiafor example
et al.et alia, et aliae, et aliiand others
etc.et caeteraand so on
f., ff.folium, foliapage(s)
i.a.inter aliaamong other things
ibid.ibidemin the same place
i.e.id estthat is
lb.librapound (weight)
nem.con.nemine contradicenteno one dissenting
op.cit.opera citatothe work cited
p.a.per annumper year
p.m.post meridiemafter noon
p.p.per procurationemthrough the agency of
q.v.quod videon this matter see
rein rein the matter of
sicsic erat scriptumthus it was written
vs. (in legal text v.)versusagainst
viz.videlicetnamely, that is to say

You can use sic to indicate a mistake in a cited text to show that the mistake was in the original text and is not yours. It is usually put inside square brackets: [sic]

The following are capitalised:

ADanno Dominiin the year of the Lord
C.V.curriculum vitaecourse of life
M.O.modus operandimethod of operating
N.B.nota benenote well
P.S.post scriptumafter what has been written

Even if Latin words often are italicised in English text, you should write their abbreviations in normal font.

Read more about e.g. and i.e. and about et al.

Graffiti showing the abbreviations OK and K.O.
No, no, these are not Latin abbreviations!

What is the correct way of writing et al.?

The Latin abbreviation et al. is short for et alia (et aliae, et alii), meaning and others (alia is masculine plural, aliae is feminine plural and alii neuter plural).

When referring to literature, the abbreviation is used to replace author or editor names when there are more than two (in some cases more than three) authors or editors:

Simon et al. (2000) showed the importance of R&D for production.
This has been pointed out in previous research (e.g., Eriksson et al., 2016; Palm et al., 2016; Platts et al., 1996).

Make sure you put the full stop in the right place! The word et is not abbreviated but alia is, so the full stop must be after al.

When you write et al., the verb must of course have its plural form:
Simon et al. (2000) have pointed out that …

In the possessive form, et al. is followed by an apostrophe and an s:
Simon et al.’s (2000) contribution to research …

Latin words are sometimes italicised in English text, but abbreviations should not be in italics, unless the publisher requires it.

You will find some common Latin abbreviations in English here.

Continuous or continual?

Continual and continuous (and the adverbs continually and continuously) come from the verb continue but there is a difference between them.

CONTINUOUS

Continuous means that something is going on without interruption, non-stop.
The continuous humming from the fridge made me crazy. (A continual humming would be worrying: Why does it stop, start again, stop, then start again …?)

CONTINUAL

Continual implies that something often happens with intervals, comes and goes.
Being a typical teenager she had continual quarrels with her parents about homecoming rules. (Both she and her parents should be happy that the quarrels were not continuous.)

As with many other word pairs you may find that some writers don’t make a distinction between these two words. As a good English writer you know the difference, of course.

A couple is walking through heavy rain trying to protect themselves with an inflatable air mattress
It rained continuously for three hours…
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