Spelling Rules: Split and Open Compound Words

alphabet crackers spelling

Variant Spellings of Compound Words

Okay, so you usually you can know the spelling of a word by sounding it out, or just Googling how you think it’s spelled (then Google’s like “Yo you actually mean this word.”)

However, there’s a strange exception. Many words can be split and written as two words, combined as one, or used with a hyphen. We sometimes call them compound words.

Should it be shutdown or shut down? Is it pull out, pullout, or pull-out?

In my time as a content manager, confusing words like these in the context seems like the most common mistake among writers.

The right spelling for these kinds of words depends on three things: (1) the context, (2) style guide you use, (3) and whether you’re using American or British English.

It pays to understand the difference between variant spellings of the same word. Whether you need a refresher or are an aspiring language student, this page should clear it up for good!

1 – Spelling Depends on Context

The spelling of an English word may change depending on its part of speech in the sentence. Generally, if the word is split (or open), it’s should be a verb, while nouns combine (or close) the compound into one word. But as an adjective phrase, it’s usually hyphenated.

Wait, What Do You Mean “Part of Speech”?

I am glad you asked! The part of speech of a word defines the function of it within the sentence. There’s quite a few way to classify words, including:

  • Nouns = any person, place, object, or idea (dog, cheese, New York, Obama, etc…)
  • Verb = any action performed by a noun (jump, run, sneak, think, wash, etc…)
  • Adjective = words that describe the noun (red, tall, skinny, empty, loud, etc…)
  • Adverb = words that modify adjectives or other adverbs. Many of them end with -ly (often, tightly, brightly, quietly, etc…)

There’s also articles, prepositions, pronouns, and interjections – but you get the picture.

So, Part of Speech Affects the Spelling. Great!

Yes! But it’s not exactly that simple. You need to understand the context to decipher how you should use the word to communicate best.

The confusion lies with some words that can function as many types of words depending on the context.

For example, the word “love” could be a noun or a verb, such as…

You love your new puppy. And, your heart is filled with love when you kiss him every morning!

Or you could use the word “empty” as a verb or adjective in the following way…

You empty your closet of old clothes. Then, you suddenly feel an empty sadness inside as you come across an old love letter from your ex.

So in reference to compound words, remember:

NOUNS = ONE WORD

VERBS = TWO WORDS

ADJECTIVES = HYPHENATED PHRASES

We can now clear up the question concerning shut down or shutdown:

  • Verb – “After the mutant alien escaped the lab, the government shut down the facility.”
  • Noun – “The facility shutdown prevented the Dr. Klives from evacuating.”

Between shootout or shoot out:

  • Verb – “Dr. Klives used a laser gun to shoot out the creature’s eyes.”
  • Noun – “Enraged, the beast summoned the mother ship. The Air Force scrambled into a fierce shootout with a fleet of alien foes.”

With pull out or pull-out:

  • Verb – “Finally, the brave General Davis ordered the elite forces to pull out of Iraq.”
  • Adjective – “Meanwhile, in rural Kentucky, Mary sternly reprimanded her boyfriend that the pull-out method is not an acceptable form of birth control.”

That’s usually the rule, but there are so many exceptions, you’d best consult a dictionary if you have any doubt. However, you’ll find even some dictionaries differ in what words they accept for valid spellings. I’d always recommend consulting with your editor to be safe.

As an exception, consider everyday vs. every day:

  • Noun – “Every day, Mary felt a strange belly ache that burned inside.”
  • Adjective – “Suddenly, the everyday pain grew unbearable. Then a monster clawed out from her belly and devoured the poor woman.”

You’ll notice that spell checkers on Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or editing software will flag these compound words even if you use them correctly. Don’t fret! Those programs are just robots that often don’t take into account the context.

2 – Spelling Depends on the Style Guide

Sometimes splitting of compound words depends on the style guide your editors choose to use. Usually, journalist and bloggers use the AP Stylebook, historians and other humanities use the Chicago Manual or MLA, and the medical fields use APA.

Rather than memorizing the preferred norms of your particular niche, you’re better off simply referring to a hard copy of your style book or a quick Google search on a case-by-case basis. Remember there are many exceptions to the compound-split word.

The AP style guide has a nice reference list of compound words I keep bookmarked.

3 – Spelling Depends on Your Dialect of English

Finally, your dialect of English may dictate spelling of compound words. Places like the UK, South Africa, India, and Australia use some form of British English. Meanwhile, American English is standard in the US, Canada, and the Philippines.

For some reason, British writers sometimes use “thankyou” as one word when used as a noun. Trends show many of their two-word phrases are moving towards one-word closed compounds (notice numbers are commonly used in adjective phrases and thus hyphenated). Meanwhile, American English dominated countries favor two words.

So, here in the states, we would say “health care” but in the UK they prefer “healthcare.”

British English also tends to use hyphens to separate prefixes from the rest of the word.

For example, while they look strange to us, each of these words has correct spelling in British English:

  • “The Royal Air Force join the fray in the pre-dawn hours of the fighting.”
  • “At last, Dr. Klives emerged from the abandoned lab with his semi-autonomous robot
  • “After his killer robot saved the world, the post-war economy boomed.”
  • “But in the dark alleys of Louisville, the ugly monster sought to re-order his species for the second wave of attack.”

As we introduce new words into English, sometimes dictionaries are slow to keep up with what’s trendy in that part of the world. The common word “website” used to be the two-word phrase “Web site” (with Web capitalized as it’s a shorthand for the “World Wide Web”). The AP Stylebook recently made the change official, but other authority dictionaries and language associations around the world are still inconsistent.

If you are unsure about a word, you should consult a dictionary relevant to your location. Merriam-Webster is the authority on American English with Cambridge or Oxford over British English.

Keep in mind: there’s no official or standard way of writing. These conventions about splitting compounds probably will change over the next 50 years and have a lot more exceptions as we invent new words. Hey, feel free to have fun using some creative license in writing. Both Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss made up words in their literature.

But for serious publications for your university or career, stick to the one-word nouns, two-word verbs, and hyphenated adjective phrases. That’s a general tip, not exactly a rule because of all the exceptions.

Hope this all was helpful! Let me know what other writing topics I would blog about for everyone.

If you need professional editing, you can hire me to review your business or academic papers to ensure you get the success you deserve.

Together – we can write to inspire!

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About the Author: Jonathan Crow

2 Comments

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