It’s a proofreader’s job to know the how the nitty-gritty bits of language work. But no-one’s perfect, and some words can cause more head-scratching than others.

Compounds, for example.

A compound word is made up of other words (usually two) that exist in their own right. The parts are stuck together to create a whole new word, like the two halves of a Victoria sponge. (Mmm, cake.)

Words like chairlift, bedrock, cliffhanger, catfish or bookshelf. Or proofreader.

Now, as I typed those, two of them became festooned with red wiggly lines to tell me I’d committed a hideous spelling crime. I knew it would happen; it proves my point perfectly. So I’ll ask you, dear reader: would you have written any of those with a hyphen? And if so, can you explain why?

[Allows pause for deep thought.]

No, you probably can’t, because our choices about compound words defy explanation.

When people discover that I know a bit about language, and could happily discuss its finer points long into the night (with or without cake), one of two things usually happens. Either they back away slowly with a look of horrified pity and/or relief at finding out my terrible secret before it was too late. Or they say, “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask…”

And what they often want are nice, easy, definitive answers to language questions that have been bothering them.

“Rules! Give us rules that are simple to learn!” is about the gist of it.

Well, first of all, it’s nigh on impossible to come up with any ‘rule’ about language that doesn’t have several exceptions. And with compound words, we’re completely out of luck.

When there are no rules

You can hyphenate any of the sample compound words above if you want to, and a proofreader (or proof-reader) shouldn’t correct them, because that would be fine. But if you only use one work of reference to check such spellings, you can get a distorted idea of what is ‘right’.

For example, my computer spellcheck (there’s another one) wants me to hyphenate cliffhanger and proofreader. However, my dictionary* only has them as full compound words. It doesn’t even give hyphenation as an option. With these, as with many other examples, it seems to be purely a matter of personal preference.

(Whichever version of a word you choose, though, please at least try to make it the same throughout each piece of writing. Just to give some sort of constant for a proofreader to cling to.)

So, can we relax now and treat all compound words the way we want?

No. That would be too easy.

You might choose to hyphenate those examples but some words have gone beyond the shilly-shallying stage and become firmly established as whole words.

You definitely wouldn’t write cup-board or ward-robe, bed-room or tea-pot.  But at some point in the past, that’s probably how they would have been written. And here’s a bit of a conundrum.

It seems fairly simple to understand the usual evolution of compound words. There’s book and there’s shelf. Then gradually we have a book shelf, then book-shelf, then bookshelf. But some words and phrases seem to be working to a different pattern: Jane Austen refers to mince-pies and Gracechurch-street, for example, which we would now write as two separate words. (Mmm, mince pies.)

As we’ve seen, dictionaries aren’t much help. The tome that sits on my desk* gives me off-key, offload, off-peak, offprint, offshore, offside, off spin, and offspring. Where’s the logic in that?

One thing we can say is that the two halves of a compound word are likely to be single syllables, and fairly common words in their context. So while catflap may yet become an accepted word, velociraptorflap would never have caught on, for several reasons which I’ll leave you to imagine.

Two become one: the dangers of over-generalising

Despite the lack of clear rules, it is still possible to make a proofreader wince by using a compound word instead of its separate parts.

First, an example where it doesn’t really matter: ‘I put the dictionary on the bookshelf’ means exactly the same as ‘I put the dictionary on the book shelf’.

But ‘You should exercise everyday’ has this proofreader reaching for the space bar, if not the dumbbells.

Why? Because there is still a distinction, however subtle, between everyday and every day.

As a compound word, it is an adjective – used to describe something. It should appear before the thing it’s describing (that’s where adjectives go in English, unless you’re deliberately playing about, as in poetry). So you could have an everyday occurrence or a surprising occurrence. You could have an everyday meal, a fabulous meal or a big meal.

The ‘exercise’ example above isn’t describing the exercise – it’s telling us when it should happen. In this case, each day. Or… every day.

You may argue that the meaning is clear and I’m being over-picky here. But for those of us who still see the distinction (and believe me, I’m not the only one), the use of everyday there leaps to the eye. It’s as jarring as seeing ‘He drove home slow’ or ‘She posts blogs regular’.

There are several more that behave in similar ways – not all of them act as adjectives, so it’s tricky to pin down a pattern. See what you think about the following pairs of sentences (all proofreader-approved!):

The onboard facilities are luxurious.There is a bar on board.
Nearly everyone loves cake.There was enough cake for every one of us.
There’s a queue at the checkout.I’ve finished shopping – time to check out.
I’ll see you sometime.Explaining this could take some time.
Let’s get a takeaway.Take away three from nine.


It was much simpler when compound words were just two nouns jammed together. Since we’ve started applying the same ideas to actions, descriptions and positions, things have got a whole lot more complicated.

There will come a time when either version could be used and no-one will mind, as with the hyphenated words in the first half of this post. Eventually – who knows? – the two-word sense could disappear altogether.

But while some people still do mind, I for one will forcibly wrench those words apart wherever I see the necessity.

And just for the record, alot is never right. Never. Not even when describing how much I like cake.

*Concise Oxford English Dictionary, twelfth edition (2011)