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A Word, Please: Even dictionaries don't always agree

January 24, 2014|By June Casagrande

According to my 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary, “good-bye” and “co-operate” are hyphenated, neither “leg room” nor “birth rate” can be run together into a single word, and “teenager” doesn’t exist.

But open a current dictionary like Webster’s New World and you’ll get a very different story. “Goodbye” is usually one word, “cooperate” is also a closed term, and so are “legroom,” “birthrate” and “teenager.”

As regular readers of this column know, words change over time. These twists and turns of the English language can be hard to navigate and even harder to predict. But when it comes to “open compounds,” which are terms made up of multiple words separated by spaces, “closed compounds,” which run words together into one, and hyphenated compounds, the future is easier to foresee.

“With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online),” the Chicago Manual of Style says.

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In other words, as people get used to putting “cell” in front of “phone,” they stop thinking of it as a new twist on the familiar phone and start thinking of it as a distinct thing, a cellphone. For nouns especially, the more common the term, the more likely it will end up as a closed compound.

But the part of speech is key. “Compound nouns are usually written as one word, compound verbs are generally written as two, and compound adjectives are very often written with a hyphen,” notes Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. That’s why in the dictionary you’ll find the adjective “good-looking” hyphenated, the verb “pick up” open and the noun “makeup” one word. But there are plenty of exceptions: “Cooperate” is a closed compound even though it’s a verb.

Other times, it’s up to you.

“For many terms, it is often completely acceptable to choose freely among open, hyphenated, and closed alternatives, even though the term has been used in English for an extended period (for instance, lifestyle, life-style, or life style),” notes Merriam-Webster’s.

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