The proper way to spell compound words in English

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Jose A. Carillo

Jose A. Carillo

Should a compound word be spelled out as one word or two words or be hyphenated?

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Let’s consider the grammar dilemma brought to my attention recently by Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum. She says that in her work online, a colleague describes the tasks she’s still doing as “on going” and another labels the assignments she’s still working on as “on going.” She then asks me: Would it be all right to tell them that the correct way to spell “on going” is “ongoing”?

My advice to Miss Mae: “Tell them that the two-word ‘on going’ doesn’t exist in the English lexicon. The correct word is ‘ongoing,’ which means ‘being actually in process’ or ‘continuously moving forward.’ If by any chance they don’t believe you, ask them to check any reputable English dictionary. Assure them that they’ll be doing themselves a great favor by shifting to ‘ongoing’ before the start of New Year 2014.”

Now that we’re on the subject, let me point out that styles and practice actually vary in how compound words are spelled, but it greatly helps to recognize that formally, there are three forms of compound words: (a) the closed or one-word form, such as “volleyball,” “downtown,” and “longhand”; (b) the hyphenated form, such as “ex-president,” “writer-director,” and “action-packed”; and (c) the open form, such as “life insurance,” “defense secretary,” and “mass marketing.”

The spelling that ultimately prevails for a compound term is often largely determined by editorial style and preference, but there’s a typical pattern that holds true for most new compounds in English: (a) compound nouns are usually written as one word, like “bedroom,” “fireflies,” and “football”; (b) compound verbs are generally written as two or more words, like “was running,” “had taken,” and “would be seen,” with the main verb working with an auxiliary; and (c) compound adjectives are very often written with a hyphen, like “high-speed,” “part-time,” and “well-developed.”

A few compound terms in English retain the flexibility to be spelled in the closed, hyphenated, or open form, like “lifestyle” with its acceptable variants “life-style” and “life style,” but many compounds—like “ongoing”—eventually congeal into just a single word to yield its particular meaning. Below are a few commonly misused examples of such closed-form compounds:

1. The one-word “altogether” means “completely” or “in total,” as in “She’s altogether disappointed with the laboratory test results.” It’s distinct from “all together,” which means “in a group,” as in “The refugees were relocated all together in a rickety stadium.”

2. The one-word “underway” means occurring, performed, or used while traveling or in motion, as in “The rescue aircraft performed underway refueling for the stricken jetliner.” It’s distinct from “under way,” which means having started and in progress, as in “The convention is now under way in Manila.”

3. The one-word “letdown” means discouragement or disappointment, as in “Our team’s lackluster performance was a big letdown.” The compound verb “let down” means to allow to descend gradually or fail to support, as in “Gently, the pilot let the disabled helicopter down” and “The honor law graduate let his school down by failing the bar exams.”

4. The one-word “onceover” means a swift examination, as in “I gave the edited manuscript a final onceover before sending it to the publisher.”

5. The one-word “workout” means a practice or exercise to test or improve one’s fitness for athletic competition, ability, or performance, as in “My 15-minute run around the park gave me a good workout.” In contrast, the compound verb “work out” means to bring about by exertion, as in “You have to work out your own self-study program.”

A word of caution though about compound words of this kind. To be doubly sure of how they should be spelled, always consult a reliable dictionary.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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4 Comments

  1. Bonifacio Bangayan Claudio on

    Language is how the people speak it, as in the word “salvage”… your reliable dictionary would surely tell you the opposite meaning attributed to it by the “people” on the streets here in Pinas. Have you heard how the people use the word “promise”? hehehe… Would you rather say wrong choice of word? Or would you attribute it to “generation-gap”? You could lambast me but using this language is sometimes confounding as you don’t know if you’re “coming” or “going”… hehehe or hahaha… Bonjour chez vous… How would you say it in English?… By the way, He & She -vs- man, woman, lesbian, fagot, trans-sexual, bi-sexual… now tell me, who is “she” or “he”? hihihihi… hihihihi… banal na aso, santong kabayo, natatawa ako… sayo… ayyyyy ambooooot!!!

    • To Bonifacio Bangayan Claudio: I’m sorry to say that you are talking out of turn. The discussion is not on how people speak English but on how compound words are spelled in English. It’s evident that you are unable to discern the big difference between those two aspects of the language. It’s not too late, though. You can correct that deficiency by doing a rigorous continuing self-study of English.

  2. @Mr.Carillo, in this day of social media and heavy txting, anything is permissible to be quick
    .

    • That’s true, GreggDoronila, and all the worse for English and for language as a whole! Let me say though that whether in the traditional or in the social media, it’s much better to read good English than bad English. You see, permissible is not necessarily desirable.