Two Words: Compound

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This series is about single words that are each, individually, worth a thousand pictures. Seems a simple enough premise.

Except when it isn’t. What about “words” that consist of two or more words?

Increasingly I’m feeling the need to write about expressions such as “lame duck”, “ice cream”, or “son of a gun”.

Two Words: Compound

No, wait – that isn’t strictly true. These examples aren’t on any list of words I plan to write about. They’re just examples.

The point is, all the above (and thousands of others) feel to me like whole words – single words. Yet we write them with spaces as two or more. Are they one, or two? Can I count such an expression as one word for purposes of my essay series?

Yes, I can! And I will. My reasons should please even the purists among us. If they don’t – well, then, let’s talk.

We’re generally familiar with the idea of “compound words”. These are words like daybreak, aftershock, backyard. Words formed by running other words together into one mishmash. This type of compound word is called “solid”.

Expressions such as day-to-day, time-consuming, know-how also are compound words. They’re called (for obvious reasons) “hyphenated”.

What about the spaced examples above, consisting of multiple words that are neither run-together nor hyphenated?

Turns out that Merriam-Webster and other lexical authorities do accept these expressions as “words” – including them as such in dictionaries.

They’re called simply “compounds” or “spaced compounds” (as distinct from compound words). Some people have proposed naming them “lexemes”.

The rule seems to be that when (a) a multi-word expression denotes a single concept, and (b) normally occurs with spaces before and after, or between a space and punctuation, then it’s legit to treat it as one word. (Whether or not we call it that is just semantics.)

As an example, here’s what Merriam-Webster says about the expression “lame duck”:

“Lame duck, the political term for an elected official who is in the period between when they are still in office but awaiting the inauguration of the successor (either through a recent loss in an election or because of term limits) is spiking this evening. It is January 12th, 2016, and President Barack Obama, currently a lame duck himself, is giving his final State of the Union address.”

Here follows an off-topic rim shot (rimshot? rim-shot?): Notice that this prestigious dictionary publisher – the freakin’ Merriam-Webster dictionary, folks – refers to “an elected official” as “they”. Is this a screwup? Using a plural pronoun for a singular individual?

Before we implode, here’s the deal: There’s sharp debate today, in lexical circles, as to whether “they” and “their” can rightly be used as singular pronouns. The same editors who wrote about compounds also have written about this pronoun controversy, as will I. (Stay tuned.)

Back to compounds: How do we know when to space them, hyphenate them, or run them together? Guess what – we don’t!

Except by looking them up. There’s no clear rule to guide us. It’s all a matter of custom. Plus, customs change rapidly. Dictionaries and other guides, like the Associated Press style manual, don’t always agree.

You can start a barroom brawl by floating one of these questions at a convention of lexicographers.

The important thing is to do our best – while striving, above all, to stay consistent.

For me, the point is simple: If I want to write about a morning glory, a soul sister, a nom de plume, or the like as “one word” – you can’t catch me!


Two Words: Compound — 3 Comments

  1. From reader John Kolstoe:

    “It’s the French who insist that usage should conform to rules. Americans act as if usage is the rule. It’s a specious debate since the idea is to communicate and words just happen to be poor, but best vehicle. Since we speak in a continuous flow, without breaks, non-readers learning to read have been heard to ask, ‘what are those holes between the words?'”

    • Wonderful suggestion, @DevSamaddar! If “portmanteau” weren’t already on my list of words to write about, I’d add it. There also are some portmanteau words (as distinct from the word “portmanteau” itself).

      Why not share some of your own portmanteaus? Either here or, better yet, on your own blog at

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