Hyphens and Compound Words #amwriting

National Novel Writing Month is in full swing. I am busy writing incomprehensible words that will require a great deal of revising and editing. But all that aside, this perfectly good post on hyphens and compound words was just lying around, so here you go! It was first posted on June 26, 2017, and since then, nothing has changed in the world of hyphenation. However, we can always use a little refresher when it comes to compound words and their usage.

Compound words are frequently a source of grief when I receive my manuscript back from my editor. Despite my best efforts, I habitually hyphenate words that should not be hyphenated.

Most people know that a compound word combines 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. 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 us 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 it expresses a single thought.

  • “The children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences with one or more parents.
  • If the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a single 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

Suffixes: 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. My editor always kindly reminds me of this.

In the end, if you are in doubt and it’s holding up your work, go to an online dictionary to see the various ways it can be combined. Just go to:


What it all comes down to is this—when editing for another author, I can 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.


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 accessed June 25, 2017

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

This article first appeared on Jun 26, 2017, as Compound Words and Hyphens by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2017 https://wp.me/p1pa44-2X5


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22 responses to “Hyphens and Compound Words #amwriting

  1. Was struggling with this just yesterday. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One word commonly used that one has the same letter ending the prefix and beginning the base word is co-operate. I see it written as cooperate far too often.
    An excellent post that makes a tricky subject clear. A post to keep for reference.
    Amd isn’t it odd we can spot things in other’s writing, yet miss it in our own?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, gosh yes! The things I miss in my unedited work. Part of the problem is that many words like co-operate have undergone an evolution combining them into one. Merriam-Webster now combines it. It looks weird to me, but since that is the way Merriam-Webster online spells it, I roll with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I find these errors in almost every manuscript. Thanks for an enlightening post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn’t know this. I usually guess!
    Thanks for some rules.


  6. Reblogged this on Writing Wrinkles and commented:
    A useful post I’m reblogging for our writing group (and for me, so I know where I can find it.)
    I generally just guess about hyphenated words (or not). It’s handy to know ‘the rules’ (and that I’m not the only one confused about co-operate – see comments).


  7. Pingback: Hyphens and Compound Words #amwriting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy | When Angels Fly

  8. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Here’s some helpful enlightenment on one of the more annoying editing problems we all face. My own bete-noir is what Connie J. Jasperson tells me are “closed compounds”: combinations that are joined into a single word. I keep telling myself to try being consistent—is it “web site” or “website”? In some cases, if you’re writing for a particular publication, you can consult a style guide (I’m pretty sure that’s two words). If not, it’s off to a dictionary and then a round of “find/replace.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash (revisited) #amwritng | Life in the Realm of Fantasy

  10. Jaq

    And the you get into British English which hyphenates words that American English doesn’t, like co-operate. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Make sure your word processor is set for the correct language. That will solve those problems very likely. MS Word has almost 40 versions of English.

    Liked by 1 person