What do these words have in common? They are all compound words, specially designed to make me crazy while editing.
Compound words are two or more words joined together to create one word with a new meaning. Often they are noun or noun-adjective combinations. Compound words fall into one of three categories:
- Open, which are two words with a space between them, such as "ice cream," "post office," and "living room";
- Closed, with no space between the words, such as "childlike," "backyard," and "houseboat"; and
- Hyphenated, where two words are joined by a hyphen, such as "get-together," "walk-through," and "once-over."
For example, "teacup" is a closed compound word according to Webster's Dictionary, but the closely related "tea bag" is open. And "teacup" becomes "tea-cup" in the Oxford English Dictionary and at Dictionary.com (based on the Random House Dictionary).
How can writers and editors handle these maddening words? One option is to just memorize lists of the most common compound words. If that seems daunting, then try my strategy. On your first pass through a document, circle all the compound words. Find an authoritative dictionary (I like Webster's) and look each one up. I keep a running list of spelling decisions to make sure I'm consistent. If the compound word isn't in Webster's, then I play it safe and spell it as two words.
Whether you're trying to spell "stopwatch" or "stop sign," using this strategy should help you manage the unpredictable, changeable nature of compound words.