Monday, June 22, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Compounds & Hyphens

Compound words are a particularly fascinating feature of language. They essentially represent how new words are created and enter common usage. It is a fairly democratic process: anybody might invent a more accurate word to keep pace with a nascent function or idea. It is up to the general populace to take the word and run with it, or leave it by the wayside.

Compound words are expressed in three different ways.

1) as an open compound = the compound is spelled as two words {science fiction}
2) as a closed compound = the compound is spelled as one word {bookstore}
3) as a hyphenated compound = a hyphen connects two words {editor-in-chief}

Generally speaking, a new word enters the scene as an open compound, transitions using a hyphen and is considered common usage as a closed compound. Our vocabulary for virtual technology is the most obvious arena where we see this phenomenon. Consider the tentative electronic mail to e-mail to the now common, email.

Not that it's always an easy evolution. The rules governing compound words and hyphenation are fickle and abundant -- writers and editors will want to keep a dictionary and a style guide handy. For this week's tip, here are a few basic rules to get you started.

Most of the time adverbs ending in -ly are explicit enough not to warrant a hyphen, neither before nor after the noun, but The Copyeditor's Handbook warns us about ambiguous combinations: "He too readily agreed. [Means He also agreed.] He too-readily agreed. [Means He agreed too readily.]"

Compound modifiers
Attributive Adjectives come before a noun and usually include a hyphen for clarity's sake {she is a short-fiction writer}
Predicate Adjectives follow a noun and it's usually clear which noun they describe, so hyphenation is not necessary but can be used if desired {she writes short fiction}

Numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated

The Chicago Manual of Style has several comprehensive compound and hyphenation lists, sorted by Type (according to grammatical function), Formed with Specific Terms, and Formed with Prefixes. If you don't have the hard copy handy, see the website.

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