Using Compound Words for Spelling Help Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011


Putting two words together is often as simple as adding one word to the other. Sometimes, though, combining words requires a hyphen or it requires the words to remain separate, even though they become one idea. This lesson will explain how to create compound words.

SOMETIMES IT MAY seem that we can join any two words by simply adding one to the other. After all, new buzzwords appear every day that combine two separate words to create new meaning—for instance, website. It is certainly true that new words can be created by adding one to the other; there are thousands of compound words in the English language. Some compound words, however, are more readily accepted than others. There are rules about when a compound word should be written as one word, as a hyphenated word, or as separate words with one meaning. Conversely, there are some words that should be written as compound words but that are often mistakenly written as two separate words.

You might think there is little or no difference between words written as two separate words or as a single, compound word, but in fact the difference in meaning can be significant. A soft ball, for example, is any ball that is soft. But the word softball has a more specialized meaning: it is the ball used in the game of softball.

First, let's take a closer look at compound words. There are technically three forms of compound words. The first form—what you probably think of when you hear the term compound word—is the closed form. In the closed form, two words are joined together to create one word. For example, childlike, redhead, laptop, paperback, and mailroom are all closed-form compound words.

The second form is the hyphenated form, which may consist of more than two words. This form includes words like self-conscious, sister-in-law, and over-the-counter (when used as an adjective).

The third form of compound words is the open form. Words such as real estate, post office, blue collar, and middle class are in this category. This is the category that people most often fail to think of as compound words. However, the two words work together as one unit.

To further confuse matters, some words are accepted when written in any of the three forms, while some absolutely are not. Moreover (which is a compound word!), some words begin as open-form compounds and, over time, become written as hyphenated compound words and, finally, as closed-form compound words. Generally speaking, compound words morph in their forms because of accepted usage. As a word begins to be written more and more as a hyphenated word, for example, instead of as two separate words, the hyphenated form will become the more accepted and standard form.

TIP: Since compound words have been known to change over time, the best way to be sure you are spelling a word correctly is to look it up in a good, up-to-date dictionary. You can also rely on style and usage guides to explain the most current forms for compound words. If you are writing an essay for a class, you might want to ask your teacher to tell you the accepted form for the word in question. For example, some usage guides write Web site, while others write web-site and still others write website. Which one is correct? It depends on where it is being written and the style guidelines that govern it. The bottom line is that when you are unsure of how the recipient of your work would like a word written, you should ask!

When creating closed-form compound words, there is a simple rule to keep in mind. Two individual words in succession can be combined into one compound word if the combination creates one idea or item. That is the key for compound words. If the two words do not create one idea or item, then they should always stay separate. In most cases, when creating the closed-form compound word, you will keep the spelling of the individual words intact, as with a word like ladybug.

But what about hyphens? In certain specific instances, hyphens are used to create compound words. A compound adjective that appears before the noun is hyphenated: for example, light-blue umbrella.

Commonly Confused Compound Words 

As with most word types in the English language, there are some that are particularly tricky and confusing. Words like alright and all right are often confused. The same is true of maybe and may be, and anyway, and any way. Such words cause confusion because they have slightly different meanings when written as one closed-form compound word versus two distinct, individual words.

List of Closed-Form Compound Words 

Here is a list of closed-form compound words. It is by no means a complete list, but it will give you an idea of the range of words that are considered compound words. You may wish to read through the list and note any words that you do not know, and look them up in your dictionary.

Compound Words

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Using Compound Words for Spelling Help Practice Exercises

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