Writers use compound words and sentences to add a little more color to their writing. But they can be tricky to write correctly, even for those who review written materials every day and stay up to date on new dictionary entries and yearly amendments to the more popular style guides.
It’s extremely common for writers to hyphenate compound words when they shouldn’t, for example, or to use the wrong version of a compound word in a sentence altogether. It’s also common for writers to use the wrong types of clauses and conjunctions or punctuation when writing compound sentences.
While there are many types of compounds that exist in the English language, the following four types are the most common: compound nouns, compound verbs, compound modifiers, and compound sentences. Below is more information about each.
Compound nouns come in three main forms: open, closed, and hyphenated.
- Open compound nouns consist of two words that are not attached to each other, such as “real estate,” living room,” and “life span.”
- Closed compound nouns consist of two words that are attached to each other, such as “bookstore,” “workshop,” and “toothpaste.”
- Hyphenated compound nouns consist of two words that are attached to each other with a hyphen, such as “check-up” and “get-together.”
Most compound nouns consist of two words, often formed by combining one noun with one adjective or by combining one noun to another noun. But they can consist of more than two words (e.g., “mother-in-law”) and there are other common ways to create a compound noun. For instance, you can combine a noun with a preposition or a verb to create a compound noun (e.g., “onlooker,” “voice-over,” “snowfall,” and “haircut”).
Every subject in a sentence needs at least one verb (or “action word”) and can have more than one verb or a compound verb. When the subject of a sentence has more than one verb assigned to it, those verbs can sometimes be considered a compound verb. Compound verbs can also be open, closed, hyphenated, or scattered throughout a sentence. And they can form other parts of speech, particularly prepositions.
They are not as commonly used as compound nouns or other compound modifiers, and sometimes compound nouns that consist of verbs are used as compound verbs (e.g., “spot-check”). Here are some examples of some compound verbs: “proofread,” “sidestep,” “water-proof,” “double-click,” and “color-code.”
A compound modifier includes two or more words to express or describe a single concept. They are typically used when writers want to make their adjectives more colorful or distinct in a sentence. These are also the compound forms that tend to trip people up the most because they often use hyphens. Compound modifiers often use prefixes (e.g., “pre-war”) and can contain single letters too (e.g.,“U-turn” and “X-ray”).
When using compound modifiers, you should hyphenate them when they precede the noun that they are describing in a sentence. For example:
“This long-term solution will help the company.”
But when the compound modifier is used after the noun it’s describing in a sentence, it shouldn’t be hyphenated (AP style is the exception to this rule). For example:
“This solution will help the company for the long term.”
However, keep in mind that when compound modifiers are placed before a noun in a sentence but used after the word “very” or after an adverb that ends in “ly” in a sentence, they are not typically hyphenated.
Here is an example: “Her newly formed role at the firm was challenging to navigate.” Another example is “The overly confident batter struck out on three pitches.”
Compound modifiers are also typically hyphenated when they follow a verb that is in the “to be” form in a sentence. For instance, “The sky overhead was pitch-black” is correct.
Caution: Don’t ALWAYS apply the -ly rule. Here’s a seeming exception: “The friendly-faced clown sat down beside me and cried.” This is not really an exception, though, because ‘friendly’ is not an adverb, even though it ends in -ly.
Compound sentences are made up of
- two or more independent clauses that are typically connected with conjunctions or punctuation. Here’s an example of a compound sentence: “Mary prepared dinner and George set the table.”
- or two or more independent clauses where at least one of the independent clauses has a dependent clause attached to it. Here’s an example of a complex compound sentence: “If Mary prepares dinner and George sets the table, then they will be ready when their dinner guests arrive.”
For more details, read Understanding Clauses, the Building Blocks of a Sentence.
Things to Keep in Mind for Compounds
The English language is evolving, so it’s important to note that compound words and how they are spelled or used may change over time. For instance, compound words that were once open may become closed after they become better integrated into everyday vernacular. Also, new compound words will be formed and added to the dictionary over time. Because different style guides use compound words and phrases in different ways, don’t forget to consider the individual style guide you are following when writing or reviewing a document.
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