What are these compound words and how are we going to use them correctly? In English, words can be combined into compound structures that create new meaning. Once they are formed, such as in the case of hyphenated compounds, they can metamorphose over time, eventually becoming just a single word with nary a punctuation between the root nouns and adjectives.

There are three forms of compound words in the English language:

  • Closed form refers to compounds where the root words meld together, as in bulletproof, fireman or laptop.
  • Hyphenated form refers to compounds that require a hyphen in between the words, as in father-in-law, dine-in or six-pack.
  • Open form refers to compounds where a space is explicitly written between the words, as in real estate, Big Brother or personal computer.

When an open compound is used to modify meaning in a phrase, make sure to double check its meaning. Watch out for instances when readers might misconstrue which is the compounded construction. An “old spaghetti recipe,” for instance, may be a classic way to cook spaghetti or a recipe for a less-than-fresh batch of spaghetti. Do you catch my drift?

Comparative and superlative forms of adjectives used in a modifying compound require being hyphenated, as with “biggest-headed man” and “lowest-priced homes.” When a modifying compound precedes a noun, they should be hyphenated too, as with “high-ranking officials” and “home-bound worker.”

Got doubts about your use of compound words? Run your piece through a grammar checking software and find out if you managed to employ them correctly.