Compounds are words in English that are composed of 2 (and sometimes 3) words so that they create a new composite that has a single unit of meaning. They can be nouns, (paperclip, fire station, Facebook), verbs (often referred to as multi-part verbs such as look forward to, run out of), adjectives (hardworking, well-paid) and adverbs (wholeheartedly, self-consciously). Compound words are a fantastic tool in English and they are responsible for most of the ‘new’ words or words that have only been around the last 200 years.
With the power of compounds we have the power to even invent words when we have a thingamajig that we wouldn’t otherwise know what to call. This is how we got words like pasta strainer (colander), cup holder and nail polish remover. With the power of compounds comes a wide open world of creative license and freedom to use English in amazing ways.
With compound nouns there are generally three types; closed compound nouns with no hyphenation such as paperclip, teapot, and keyboard. There are hyphenated compounds such as well-being and merry-go-round. Finally there are open compound nouns where there is a space between the words with no hyphenation such as water bottle, changing rooms etc.
The rules for hyphenation are incredibly convoluted and contentious. Arguments abound over the proper use of spaces and hyphens and this is a subject worthy of looking into. Some linguists believe that this is just a feature of time and if a word survives long enough in the language it will (like all compounds) move from open compound to hyphenated and eventually to closed compound. And some words are currently in the transitioning stages and therefore more than one spelling is officially recognised.
Hard working X
All linguists acknowledge that hyphens have the ability to be used as a means of avoiding ambiguity and these rules take precedent.
For example the term English-language learners uses a hyphen to avoid the ambiguity. It doesn’t mean language learners who are English. It means learners of the English language.
Similarly Large-print paper avoids any ambiguity. It is not the print paper that is large. It is the print that is large.
Compound nouns have long been an indispensable way of creating new words and facilitate precision when talking. Words like, strap, board, rack, holder, handle, button and switch can all be made more precise by using them in compound nouns. Just think of all the different kinds of boards, or racks or switches you can have:
Keyboard, surfboard, skate board, wake board, game board
Coat rack, key rack, CD rack, tie rack,
Light switch, power switch , safety switch, float switch
Compound adjectives are great and facilitate a kind of precision in the language that might not otherwise be achieved. Think of the examples of gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. I believe these words were created a long time ago ‘artificially’ to fill a certain gap in the language. William Shakespeare was famous for his creativity in word-building and extremely gifted in this particular area. Blood-stained and cold-blooded are both owed to his creative genius.
One very helpful rule to bear in mind when creating compound adjectives is that compound adjectives will be hyphenated when they come before the noun they affect:
– This is a government-subsidized program.
But these adjectives shouldn’t be hyphenated when they come after the noun:
– The program is government subsidized.
This rule doesn’t apply to steadfast, well-known adjectives like hardworking and breathtaking.
Learners of English too often neglect these very useful words in exchange for safer single word options. DO try to incorporate compound words into your everyday speech. It will make it all the richer. Maybe you’ll even be the next Shakespeare and invent some words of your own.
Thingamajig – a generic made-up word for an object which we don’t know or have forgotten the official name of
Contentious – heavily debated, likely to cause an argument