GrammarPhile Blog

New Compounds: When Two Become One

Posted by Gregory Stepanich   Dec 15, 2009 4:00:00 AM

Up until at least the 1993 edition, the Associated Press Stylebook called for the word teenager to be spelled teen-ager -- with a hyphen. I'm sure this was one of the most ignored rules in AP history, but it's interesting to note that some authorities were still hanging onto this compound as a two-word structure long past the 1950s, when teen culture made its first big impact and made both the hyphen and Beethoven roll over.

That led me to think the other day of the number of two-word compounds in use today that appear to be rapidly coalescing into one. It's likely all of the word pairs on the following top-of-my-head list will be one word someday relatively soon, but for now, all of them are officially two words per Merriam-Webster.

Cell phone: This one dates back to 1984, used to be cellular phone, and is frequently just cell. There's no good reason for it to be two words anymore, it seems to me, but even the Verizon Wireless Web site has it as cell phone, two words - right next to another module touting its smartphone resource center. Smartphone is a relatively new word, but you'd think one of the reasons it's one and not two is that it looks and feels just like cellphone.

Health care: It might hang on as two words for a while longer than the others, but time is probably not on its side. Even the Feds can't control it: The White House has health care as two words on its site, but over at the Department of Health and Human Services, the division that monitors all this is called the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Home page: A coinage that could already be one word and cause little confusion. But opinion is divided, sometimes in the same story: A piece the other day on the Christian Science Monitor's site about the 115th anniversary of the birth of Popeye cartoonist E.C. Segar had homepage in the headline, but home page in the text.

Price tag: This one could have been one word a long time ago, though it appears to hang on as two in most of the citations I've browsed. But there are uses of it as one that can be found easily: Casino pricetag is $47 million, says a headline on the Cincinnati Enquirer site.

Road map: Not sure when this combo started to turn into one, but that appears to be the usage favored in the tech community. Wikipedia has an entire entry devoted to the definition of technology roadmap as a marketing tool, and makes a distinction between that and road map (two words), in the sense of a diplomatic strategy. The 2010 product roadmap for mobile device maker HTC has been leaked, says a recent piece in PCWorld.

Time frame: Another one in which the consensus for now appears to be two words rather than one. Meanwhile, over at, you're urged to construct an immigration timeframe to narrow down when an overseas ancestor might have set foot in the States.

Web site: Complicated by the capital letters left over from World Wide Web (itself an anachronistic use of worldwide, long one word) so that it's variously cited as Website, Web site, web site, and website. Earlier this year, Internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee said his biggest regret about building the computer network was forcing everyone to type the unnecessary "www," and so we should probably take the hint and just resolve to spell it as website.

White paper: This compound, also borrowed from the world of politics by the business community, is two words in the halls of the State Department. But the tech community sees it differently, often spelling it as one word. Microsoft's Silverlight, its Adobe Flash-style app, comes with the following help message on the tech giant's Web site: On this page you will find a series of whitepapers to help you use Silverlight.

Anyone have any other good examples of two-word compounds that are turning into one? And in the case of these examples, should they all become one word, or are there good reasons for keeping them as two? Post your replies here.

Topics: hyphenation, compound words, two-word structure, word usage

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