Those difficult compound words!

ScottsEnglishScottsEnglish Administrator Posts: 1,261 admin ✭✭✭✭✭✭✭
edited June 2018 in Grammar

We recently received a question about compound words.

The student asked if there were any rules in determining if a compound word should be:

A. hyphenated
B. written as one (1) word or
C. separated.

Here are some examples that the student cited:  

  • coursework (course+work)
  • course credit
  • whiteboard (white+board) or blackboard
  • air freshener
  • air conditioner
The student wants to know if there are guiding principles to follow when writing these words, in particular in the context of the IELTS (or other writing) exam.

The best answer to this question is: use a good dictionary. Even native speakers do not always know if the compound word is two words (like dry clean), a word with a hyphen (so-called) or one word (carpark).

A few general rules can help you on the test, though.

1. If the word is an adjective, it is usually hyphenated. Example, "The orange-colored dress was her favorite." "He is upwardly-mobile and has a good chance to become the chief executive."

2. If the word is noun + noun, or adjective + noun, it often becomes a (1) new word. Examples: "smartphone, earphones, headset, daydream, bedroom, pancake, strawberry, thunderstorm, blackboard, whitelist".

3. If it is a verb + noun, the words usually stay separate, or a noun + a long second noun (ie contains many letters). Examples, "cleaning products, air freshener, washing machine".

This is a good 'rule of thumb' when you know how to say a compound word but are not sure how to spell it!

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