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Compounds – Outlaws of English Grammar



As you can see from the title of this article, we are going to cover another grammar topic to boost your writing skills. But, unlike the previous topics, where everything was more or less clear, compounds are forerunners of the anarchy where the most definite word is “sometimes.” Sometimes compounds are written together, and sometimes they are hyphenated. Already having fun? Wait till we tell you more.


Types of Compounds

There are 3 kinds of word combinations:


  1. Open – two or more words written separately (e.g. mineral water, mountain plants, etc.)
  2. Hyphenated – two or more words with a hyphen(s) between them (e.g. non-English-speaking, two-mile walk, etc.)
  3. Closed – several words spelled as one (e.g. sheepdog, milkman, etc.)
  4. Permanent – accepted publicly and can be found in the dictionary (e.g. road sign, matchbox, etc.)
  5. Temporary – situational; can be created for one-time use, though sometimes become permanent (office newsman, bedroom reading, etc.


And if you think that there are clear-cut rules of how to determine to which category the word combination belongs, we’re sorry to disappoint you. For instance, the word “book” can be used in a compound as a separate element (e.g. coupon book), or a part of a closed combination (e.g. checkbook). The best advice here is to consult a dictionary. While you’re doing just that, we will try to highlight a handful of regulations that might still help you because not all compounds can be looked up in the almighty word directory.

To Hyphenate, Separate or Stick Together?

You know how it’s going in academic writing: everything must be neat and correct. And compounds are exactly the trouble that can spoil this peace and harmony. Moreover, they tend to be the problem of all English writers, even the native ones. So, it’s an important topic to tackle.


It is clear from the previous paragraph that there are three ways to write compounds: hyphenated, as separate words and as one word. Now we are going to group word combinations to these three categories so that you could have a cheat sheet whenever you are stuck with another compound.

Hyphenated Compounds

Hyphens are usually used to make the word combinations more readable and to eliminate confusions. You can follow this principle whenever you have doubt if the compound needs the hyphen or not.


  1. Always hyphenated before a noun:

        • Time (e.g. four-thirty plane)

        • Colors (e.g. black-and-white dress)

        • Number + noun (e.g. five-page novel)

        • Ordinal number + noun (e.g. third-floor flat)

        • Ordinal number + superlative (e.g. second-largest river)

        • Adjective + noun (e.g. high-quality service)

        • Adjective + participle (e.g. tight-lipped mouth)

        • Gerund + noun (e.g. running-shoe shop)

        • Noun + adjective (e.g. HIV-positive patients)

        • Noun + gerund (e.g. decision-making person)

        • Noun + noun (e.g. student-meal place)

        • Proper nouns relating to geography when “between” is implied (e.g. Russo-Turkish War)

        • Participle + up/out/other similar adverbs (e.g. dressed-up doll)

  2. Noun + noun implying 2 functions (e.g. nurse-practitioner)

  3. Age terms (e.g. six-year-old kid)

  4. Compass directions (more than two) – the hyphen is used after the first (e.g. west-northwest)

  5. Foreign originally hyphenated phrases (e.g. tête- à- tête)

  6. Simple fractions (e.g. one-third)

  7. Numerals (twenty-one through ninety-nine)

  8. Used with specific words: borne (e.g. air-borne), e (e.g. e-mail), ex (e.g. ex-boyfriend), free (e.g. sugar-free), great (e.g. great-grandfather), etc.


The second part of a hyphenated compound can be omitted if it’s followed by a conjunction and a compound with the same second element, but the hyphen should stay in its place.

e.g. My mother has thirty- and forty-year-old friends.

Separate Words

  • Age terms (e.g. he is ten years old)

  • Chemical terms (e.g. acid anhydride)

  • Colors (e.g. his eyes are blue green)

  • Fractions (e.g. half meter)

  • Number + abbreviation (e.g. 5 lb. weight)

  • Number + noun (e.g. this house is five meters tall)

  • Number + percentage (e.g. 60 percent)

  • Ordinal number + noun (e.g. it’s my second class)

  • Time (e.g. it’s five thirty)

  • Adverb ending in –ly + adjective/participle (e.g. fully open family)

  • Gerund + noun (e.g. moving spot)

  • Noun + gerund (e.g. problem solving)

  • Noun + noun (e.g. student nurse)

  • Noun + numeral/enumerator (e.g. size 30 jeans)

  • Participle + up/out/other similar adverbs (e.g. I was dressed up)

  • With specific words: book (e.g. history book), general (e.g. attorney general), etc.

One Word

Open and hyphenated compounds tend to become closed with time, so the number of closed ones is constantly growing.


  • Compass points and directions (e.g. northwest)

  • Noun + noun (e.g. shipbuilder)

  • With specific words: ache (e.g. headache), grand (e.g. grandfather), like (e.g. childlike), on (e.g. online), step (e.g. stepbrother), etc.

  • With prefixes: anti (e.g. antihero), bi (e.g. bisexual), cyber (e.g. cyberspace), meta (e.g. metalanguage), etc.


This is just a small part of regulations that don’t always work in practice. But keep your head up! We’ve gathered the most important and frequent rules for compounds that should save the day even if the dictionary is helpless.




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