Survivial Skills for Freelancers

Two become one: compound words and how to use them

In the process of writing a brochure for a financial services client, I found myself with a dilemma. Do I write healthcare, health-care or health care?

Ahh, those tricky compound words… are they one word, two words or hyphenated?

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is a compound word?

A compound word occurs when two or more words are joined to create a new or combined meaning.

There are three types of compound word:

  • open compounds
  • closed compounds
  • hyphenated compounds

Open compounds, closed compounds and hyphenated compounds: what’s the difference?

What is an open compound word?

Open compounds are written as two separate words. Here are some examples:

  • ice cream
  • door frame
  • full moon
  • dining table
  • coffee mug
  • phone call
  • test tube
  • first aid

What is a closed compound word?

Closed compounds are written as one word, like this:

  • sunflower
  • toothbrush
  • moonlight
  • fireplace
  • notebook
  • flowerpot
  • redhead
  • teacup

What is a hyphenated compound word?

A hyphenated compound occurs when two or more words are joined by one or more hyphens. Here are some examples:

  • self-confidence
  • mother-in-law
  • check-up
  • train-spotter
  • half-mast
  • pre-dinner
  • non-starter
  • ex-husband

The tale of the incredible disappearing hyphen…

Many words that begin as hyphenated compounds become so commonplace that the hyphen ends up being dropped – it’s a natural part of the evolution of the English language.

For example, all these words started off with a hyphen (and some dictionaries still use one):

  • online
  • mindset
  • proofreader
  • secondhand

According to a 2007 article published by Reuters, the OED dropped 16,000 hyphens in its sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Some hyphens disappeared from compound nouns, which became a single word (for instance, pigeon-hole became pigeonhole, chick-pea became chickpea and bumble-bee became bumblebee) while other compounds, such as ice cream and test tube lost their hyphen and became two words.

In the article, the dictionary’s editor, Angus Stevenson, explains that the hyphen’s demise reflects current usage: “We have been tracking this for some time and we’ve been finding the hyphen is used less and less.”

Care to make any predictions on what could be next? With the growth of online shopping, I predict that next-day – in the context of next-day delivery – will become nextday. Sure, it looks wrong now, but give it five years

Using hyphens in compound adjectives

When two words are joined to modify a noun (forming a compound adjective) and are placed before the noun, they’re usually hyphenated, but take care – when the same two words are placed after the noun, they don’t need a hyphen.

For example:

  • “Benefit from a tax-free lump sum” BUT “the proceeds are tax free
  • “Fresh from our in-store bakery” BUT “you’ll find bread in store
  • “She has a long-term illness” BUT “her symptoms will improve in the long term

Advanced tip

An exception to this rule applies when the compound adjective is formed using an adjective that ends -ly, in which case it’s always written as two separate words with no hyphen.

Here are some examples:

… a successfully applied formula

…a newly formed group

…a widely used tool

Compound words vs portmanteau words

So, is a compound word the same as a portmanteau*?

Nope. Here’s why.

Sometimes called a blend, a portmanteau is a new word that’s formed from part of one word and part of another, like this:

Brunch = breakfast + lunch

Sitcom = situation + comedy

Smog = smoke + fog

*According to the OED, Lewis Carroll was the first to use the term portmanteau in this way in Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Here, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the portmanteau word, in which “two meanings are packed up into one word”. (His description comes from portmanteau – a large bag – which is itself a blend of the words porter and mantle.)

Compound words in British English vs US English

In the process of researching this article, I came across many words spelled differently in different dictionaries. Generally speaking, British English dictionaries tend to be more cautious – clinging on to the hyphen (mouth-watering) when US English has dropped it (mouthwatering).

So, if you’re not sure of the current recommended spelling of a compound word, check your favourite online dictionary. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t always agree…

Lets vs let’s: simple tips to remember the difference

Do you know when the word LETS needs an apostrophe and when it doesn’t? Let’s take a look at the difference (see what I did there?).

When to use LETS without an apostrophe

LETS and LET’S both have the same root word: LET, which means allow, or permit.

Without the apostrophe, LETS is the third-person singular present tense form of the verb LET.

Use it in sentences where LETS can be replaced with either ALLOWS or PERMITS.

For example:

The key LETS you unlock the door.

The app LETS you meet new people.

When to use LET’S with an apostrophe

LET’S with an apostrophe is a contraction of two words: LET and US.

Use it when you’re encouraging someone to do something.

For example:

LET’S go to the pub.

LET’S buy a drink.

LET’S do it.

LET’S go!

Of course, if you want to sound more formal, you might prefer to use LET US.

LET US go to the park.

Worth knowing…

The word LETS can also be used in a property sense (real estate, if you’re using American English) to describe a rented property.

For example:

The agent handles a number of property LETS in the local area.

Let's vs lets – what's the difference?

LET’S vs LETS – what’s the difference?

Formerly vs formally: top spelling tricks to help you decide

FORMERLY or FORMALLY: which is which? Top spelling tips to remember the difference.

FORMERLY or FORMALLY – they sound the same but their meanings are very different.

So, what do these words mean – and how do you decide which spelling you need? It’s easy.

These simple spelling tips will help you decide whether you need the word FORMERLY or FORMALLY.

Formerly

FORMERLY means something that happened before, or in the past. The clue is in the root of the word: FORMER.

For example:

“I changed my name when I got married. I was FORMERLY known as Sarah Saunders.”

Formally

FORMALLY means in accordance with etiquette or convention. It’s easy to remember when you know it starts with FORMAL.

For example:

“These days, I’m FORMALLY known as Ms Townsend.”

I hope this helps you to remember the difference between FORMERLY and FORMALLY.

Confusables formerly vs formally. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Confusables: FORMERLY vs FORMALLY. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Number vs amount: top tips to remember which is which

Number vs amount: this simple tip will help you remember the difference

Of course you could! Here goes:

To start with, it can help to know that things you can count are called count nouns, and things you can’t count are called mass nouns.

Use AMOUNT for things you can’t count (mass nouns):

  • the amount of rain
  • the amount of information
  • the amount of coffee

Use NUMBER for things you can count (count nouns)

  • the number of rainy days
  • the number of facts
  • the number of cups of coffee

Simple as that: if you can count it, use NUMBER. If you can’t, use AMOUNT.

Did you know?

The same rule applies for LESS and FEWER, which are equally commonly confused.

Bonus tip

Once you know this, you can apply the same logic to MANY and MUCH.

Use MANY for things you can count, and MUCH for things you can’t.

For example:

  • Using too MANY words can confuse your message.
  • Too MUCH confusion can prevent customers from buying your products.
Number vs amount: simple tips to remember the difference

Number vs amount: simple tips to remember the difference

Aloud vs allowed: top tips to remember the difference

ALOUD vs ALLOWED: which is which? Tips and tricks to remember the difference.

ALOUD and ALLOWED are easy to confuse. The fact that the two words sound the same – they’re homophones – means people commonly mix them up.

Here are my simple tips to remember the difference between ALOUD and ALLOWED.

ALOUD means out loud. Remember that this spelling ends in LOUD.

“I’m just thinking ALOUD.”

ALLOWED means permitted. Remember it starts with ALLOW.

“You are ALLOWED to read ALOUD.”

In its verb form, ALLOWED is that past tense of ALLOW.

“She ALLOWED him to read ALOUD.”

Confusables: allowed vs aloud. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Confusables: allowed vs aloud. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial