#amwriting: compound words and hyphens

Compound words are frequently a source of grief when I receive my manuscript back from my editor. Despite my best efforts, unless I am on my toes in the writing process I habitually hyphenate words that should not be hyphenated.

Most people know that a compound word is a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning.

Most people also know that there are two types of compounds:

  • those written as single words, with no hyphenation and which are called “closed compounds”– such as the word “bedspread,”
  • “hyphenated compounds,” such as “jack-in-the-box” and “self-worth.”

But there is a third group, and they are the bane of my writing life–those mysterious, ephemeral denizens of the deepest corner of writer’s hell, called open compounds. These seemingly innocent instruments of torture are written as separate words–the nouns “school bus” and “decision making,” for example.

Fortunately, the English language has rules to guide us when deciding if it’s one word, two separate words, or a hyphenated word:  

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

The American Psychological Association  style guide gives of these examples:

covert learning techniques, health care reform, day treatment program, sex role differences, grade point average

Use a hyphen in a temporary compound that is used as an adjective before a noun

Use a hyphen if the term can be misread or if the term expresses a single thought.

  • “the children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences, whereas if the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a household headed by two parents.  In that case, a properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.

We also use hyphens for compound words that fall into these categories:

  • if the base word is capitalized: pro-African
  • when writing numbers: post-1910, twenty-two
  • an abbreviation: pre-ABNA manuscript
  • more than one word: non-achievement-oriented students
  • All “self-” compounds whether they are adjectives or nouns such as self-respect, self-esteem, self-paced.

We hyphenate words that could be misunderstood when there are diverse meanings if they’re unhyphenated:

  • re-pair (to pair again) as opposed to repair (to mend)
  • re-form (to form again) as opposed to reform (to improve)

We hyphenate words in which the prefix ends, and the base word begins with the same vowel:

  • metaanalysis
  • antiintellectual

The problem is unless you are a technical writer, how often are we going to use those terms? Hence, the confusion when we DO use them.

Get It Write online says, “One way to decide if a hyphen is necessary is to see if the phrase might be ambiguous without it. For example, “large-print paper” might be unclear written as “large print paper” because the reader might combine “print” and “paper” as a single idea rather than combining “large” and “print.” Another such example is “English-language learners.” Without the hyphen, a reader might think we are talking about English people who are learning any language rather than people who are learners of the English language.”

A good rule to remember is most words formed with prefixes and suffixes are written as one word with NO hyphen.

Prefixes: Afterglow, extracurricular, multiphase, socioeconomic

Sufixes: Arachnophobia, wavelike, angiogram

When I am laying down prose in the first draft, my natural inclination when writing these words would be to hyphenate them, but that is wrong, and my editor always kindly reminds me of this.

When in doubt, it is wisest to look the word up in an online dictionary to see the various different ways it can be combined. Just go to:


What it all comes down to is this—when editing for another author I am able to see these things clearly. In my own work–it’s like my finger has a twitch that absolutely MUST add a hyphen to compound words that should remain separate, and separates words that should be joined.

This is why the editor has an editor for her own work.

Credits and Attributions:

When do you need to use a hyphen for compound words? The American Psychological Association, http://www.apastyle.org/learn/faqs/when-use-hyphen.aspx accessd June 25, 2017

Compound Words: When to Hyphenate, Get It Write, Nancy Tuten and Gayle Swanson  http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/042703compwdshyph.htm, 2017

Parts of this post were originally posted March 4, 2014, as Hyphen Help Us, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2014-2017.


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13 responses to “#amwriting: compound words and hyphens

  1. The good news is, the mind is capable of transposing the correct meaning from the context of the sentence, even if editors are not. I, however, usually type the term into Google to see how it’s used in the results.
    Just to be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this, especially the jargon. Just a few minutes ago, I found myself trying to explain why there shouldn’t be a comma in “cute peasant blouse,” and I didn’t have the jargon to explain why “peasant blouse” functions as a unit (I now know it’s called an open compound) instead of being separate adjective and noun.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Helpful as always — and damn me if you didn’t use “laying” correctly! Lady — we need to get you in front of eager students in more venues than this! You’re a jewel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will be doing a seminar on world building with Lee French in October, at the Tumwater Library. As you know, speaking isn’t my best thing, but I do enjoy those seminars.


  4. I am not totally in agreement with leaving the hyphens out if the compound meaning is thought to be clear. Many such are capable of having different interpretations that are not always realised at first glance. Including hyphens, then, puts the matter beyond doubt. Nor do I believe the ridiculous theory that one should be expected to use context and logic to work out the meaning. The simple addition can make such pause (however brief) unnecessary.
    School bus or red bus? The construction is the same.
    He took the decision making progress. He took the decision-making progress..


    • Hello, and welcome! Clarity is everything, and I generally defer to the Chicago Manual of Style when I have doubts or questions in my own work. Every author has a unique voice in their writing. When working with an editor, you, as the author, have the final say on your style choices, and how you want your work to be seen. This is what makes our work distinct from other authors’ work.


      • I totally agree.
        My reservations have arisen, though, from passages in conformity with the Manual where I have had to pause, nevertheless, to consider whether a compound is intended or not. For this reason I am also in favour of linking three or more words with dashes when they actually form a compound.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Connie for this helpful information. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person

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