Getting Compound Words Right: To Hyphenate or Not?

When it comes to the most common compound words, many of us learn from experience whether to write it as a single word, hyphenate it, or write it as two separate words. For example, the word Editor-in-Chief is always hyphenated. However, sometimes it is not that simple. In most cases, if you are unsure, check the dictionary. Some words, such as art museum are always written as two words, whereas merry-go-round is always hyphenated. In addition, some compound words form a single word, such as schoolhouse. With these more common compounds, simply look the word up in a reliable source.

The problem lies when there is no clear answer in the dictionary. For example, is it correct to write Spanish language newspaper or Spanish-language newspaper? In general, the rule is to hyphenate adjectives when they function as a unit. In this case, we are writing about a newspaper in Spanish, not a newspaper about languages in Spain, so hyphenating is preferable. However, some compounds are so common that they are never hyphenated as they are not ambiguous. For example, good writers normally write graduate school application, not graduate-school application. On the other hand, it is more common to hyphenate out-of-state student. When combining a word with a past participle, the general rule is to hyphenate. For example, the escape was well-planned, not well planned. Be careful, because this rule does not apply to adverbs. The correct form is fully accredited college, not fully-accredited college.


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