A Finer Point: Compound issues

The hyphen – its inclusion or omission – is a useful marker of the evolution of language. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle tries to get a sense of the fast-moving hyphen landscape.

If you ask an editor or proofreader to reveal the punctuation mark they most agonise over on a daily basis, commas would no doubt feature. But I’d wager that deciding whether or not to include a hyphen in a compound phrase or word causes at least equal amounts of brainache. (Or should that be brain ache? Or brain-ache?)

The sorts of words and phrases that are under, or have at some point been under, what we might call the ‘hyphen radar’ of editors could be put into two main categories. The first the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls permanent compounds. These are in the dictionary (well, hopefully – see below), and can be open (‘ice cream’), closed (‘email’) or hyphenated (‘tear-jerker’). The second category of compounds is temporary. These are words joined for the communication of meaning at that moment. We are familiar with the hyphenated versions, usually used as modifiers – such as in ‘worst-dressed grammarian’ – but less familiar with open ones. The current CMOS (published in 2017) gives ‘impeachment hound’ (who can think why, recalling current affairs in America at the time?) as an example of the latter.

All these permutations are a lot to consider. Since I only have 1,000 words, I’m going to plump for looking at the hyphenation of permanent compounds.

Searching for answers

One of the most helpful, and entertaining, accounts of hyphens I’ve found is in David Crystal’s Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to their history and usage. But even here our introduction to these marks is somewhat daunting:

If I were to cover all variations in the use of the hyphen, I would have to write an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story. It is the most unpredictable of marks. Henry Fowler sums it up well in the opening sentence of his entry on hyphens in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage: ‘chaos’.

Oh, right. But maybe we could actually consult a dictionary to find out which words and phrases to hyphenate? Well, not so fast. Continuing with Crystal:

Changes in fashion are the main reason why the obvious solution to any question about hyphenation – look it up in a dictionary! – won’t always help.

He testifies how both ‘flower-pot’ and ‘flowerpot’ appear in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and describes the carnage of ‘hyphengate’, when 16,000 items in the OED had their hyphens removed in 2007 to make open or closed compounds: ‘Reactions ranged from the hysterical to the bemused.’

So, what’s to be done? If a dictionary search yields nothing but confusion, Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006) has sensible advice:

Some subjects have a conventional usage, and some authors have strong views, so ask before imposing your own system. Introduce hyphens only to avoid ambiguity … and do not feel that similar words must be treated ‘consistently’, e.g. lifebelt, life-jacket.

The mark of progress

Before it became a solid compound in Oxford dictionaries, one word was seized on in 1997 by RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, as proof that some dictionaries (Oxford, Chambers) are more stuffy than others (Collins, Longman):

What about electro-magnetic versus electromagnetic? Collins and Longman confirm that only the second is in use among those who use the term regularly, but Oxford clings stubbornly to the antiquated and pointless hyphen.

Trask’s view illustrates the oft-noted evolution of compounds. CMOS devotes a numbered point to the phenomenon (7.83): ‘With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online).’ Or as Benjamin Dreyer puts it in Dreyer’s English (US version, Random House, 2019): ‘compounds have a tendency, over time, to spit out unnecessary hyphens and close themselves up’. We at the CIEP know the truth of this: in 2019 (as the SfEP) we decided to allow the spitting-out of the hyphen in ‘copy-editor’ and related words. Many other editing organisations and, indeed, editors, still use it, perhaps because it’s still Oxford style, but it will be interesting to see how long it is before the last ‘copy-editor’ is closed up.

Oh dear. With all that closing up and spitting out we’ve managed to make the evolution of language sound both mournful and faintly disgusting. Let’s move on by looking at how this evolution sometimes works to open up compounds. Butcher’s states: ‘Note that African American has no hyphen even when used as an adjective’ – an approach backed in the UK by the Oxford stable (eg the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) and in the US by CMOS. However, as late as 2018 it was necessary to issue a plea for the hyphen in such descriptors of racial heritage to be universally dispensed with. In ‘Drop the hyphen in Asian American’, Henry Fuhrmann commented:

Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.

Finally, in 2019, as reported by the Conscious Style Guide in an updated introduction to Fuhrmann’s article, and to mutterings of ‘about time’, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook dropped the hyphen in these terms and in 2021 the New York Times followed suit.

The risk of clinging on

We all have compound terms that look ‘right’ to us open, closed or hyphenated. Benjamin Dreyer laments the loss of the hyphen in email:

Doesn’t ‘e-mail’ look better and, more important, look like what it sounds like? But ‘email’ was happening whether I liked it or not, and, as in so many things, one can be either on the bus or under the bus.

It’s no coincidence that the evolution of language is accelerated with terms like ‘email’ and ‘online’. They’re tech terms, and many a dictionary has fallen foul of these. The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (published in 2014) still advises a capital ‘I’ for internet. Any organisation following this guidance in 2022 would be seen as either painfully out of touch or intentionally cultivating a charmingly olde-worlde identity. So in these cases organisations and their editors must strike out beyond the dictionaries, and this is just as well. Merriam-Webster in its usage note ‘Should that word have a hyphen?’ cites another example where dictionaries have found themselves under the bus:

One dictionary that shall not be named was a bit notorious for showing the headword Web site long after most of the civilized world was using website. They wised up, eventually.

The speed of change in language that describes tech, an area of our lives that already moves eye-wateringly fast, is necessarily brisk. So it’s up to working writers and editors to reflect this, as well as the evolution of language in other areas. The dictionaries will follow. After all, as Dreyer says, ‘the dictionary takes its cue from us: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things’. He adds: ‘I hope that makes you feel powerful. It should.’


Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach. Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Conscious Style Guide. https://consciousstyleguide.com/.

David Crystal. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015).

Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English (Random House, 2019).

Henry Fuhrmann. Drop the hyphen in Asian American. https://consciousstyleguide.com/drop-hyphen-asian-american/.

Merriam-Webster. Should that word have a hyphen? https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/hyphen-rules-open-closed-compound-words.

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2014).

RL Trask. Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin, 1997).

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Photo credits: ice cream by Candy Zimmermann, flowerpots by Scott Webb, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

2 thoughts on “A Finer Point: Compound issues

  1. Paul Beverley

    Thanks, Cathy!

    Interestingly, if you search Lexico (OED) for ‘copy-editor’, it takes you straight to ‘copy editor’, but for ‘copyeditor’ it offers US English as a possible alternative.


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