Every once in a Blue Moon, I republish this article. I wrote it right after I bought both the Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. This was my first foray into real, nitty-gritty word-type stuff.
Since this is a Blue Moon month, I'd like to post a version of my original here. I had a ball writing this and hope you enjoy reading it.
My edition of CMA has nine (nine!) pages devoted to the topic of “Compounds and Hyphenation.” The AP takes a no-nonsense approach and lists, outright, that one should use hyphens
whenever ambiguity might otherwise result,
for compound modifiers,
for two-thought compounds,
for compound proper nouns and adjectives,
for prefixes and suffixes,
to avoid duplicated vowels,
for suspensive hyphenation (this means the up- and down-stairs).
I don’t think my husband understood my elation at all the hyphen information. A wordsmith can’t get enough about punctuation, though. At least, this one can’t.
When in doubt, Chicago suggests first looking in the dictionary to make the choice of whether to (a) use two words, (b) hyphenate, or (c) close up as a single word. (The alert reader has by now noticed that I prefer to use serial commas. This a completely different topic for another day.)
There are thus three possibilities for compound words: an open compound (two separate words used together), a hyphenated word, or a closed compound (two words made into a single word). The natural trend in the evolution of a compound word is from open to hyphenated to closed. An interesting concept.
This is fun to play around with (which). I took the advice of looking in the dictionary for some direction. Mine is Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. There are, of course, newer ones, but this one still seems to serve me well. Here’s some of what I found out. Let’s go top-down – a high-middle-low approach.
A topknot might make a person feel top-heavy, if it’s a top-notch topknot at the topmost point of the head. And if the topmost grade in class is top-notch, and can also be top drawer.
Does this mean the words “topmost” and “topnotch” are more fully evolved? Poor old “top drawer” has a ways to go.
Sailing seems pretty settled in, as far as evolution goes. One goes topside to operate a topsail. Closed compound words all around here.
Fire is less settled. At least torches are. A torchlight can illuminate a torch singer singing a torch song. A torchbearer can also do this.
A person can drink a high-ball on a highballing train with a bunch from high school. These are all nouns, all at different stages of putting-together-ness.
All references that I’ve found to “high school” are to an open compound. But what is the third story of a three-story school? If I say the room is located on the high school floor, do I mean this is the floor of the building that houses the high school? Or is it the topmost floor of the three-story middle school? (Okay, that phrase should rate an “awk” comment and I should reword it. The floor that houses the high school should be the high-school floor, I think, even though the adjective high-school doesn’t appear in my dictionary.)
Similarly, if I’m reading about a high school student, is this a student attending high school or a buzzed middle schooler?
All right (or alright), we’re already all ready to move down a notch.
The British possess a half crown, but we Americans use half-dollars, unless we’re paying with a half eagle (if we can find any). Also in England, although half crowns are legitimate, a halfpenny product can be purchased with a half sovereign.
In both countries one can see half-hearty plants that were raised by halfhearted gardeners.
And, by the way, that topsail can also be at half-mast.
The middle class is a middle-class group of people. That at least obeys a rule for hyphenating the adjective and separating the noun, however loose a rule that may be.
But the middleman needs to speak to middle management about his middle-of-the-road products.
Now we can move on down.
The lowdown on the lowborn brings us to the lower class. A lowlander, consistently, lives in the lowland.
The bottom-line is that this is a bottomless topic.
I’m looking forward to investigating night and day, hot and cold, or maybe even after and before. Then I’ll find another topic in my new style manuals.
This ends my original article. I never went on to ferret out inconsistencies in those words in the last paragraph. Maybe I should.
All pictures are in the public domain.