Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Isn’t it great when two people come together and create something wonderfully unique?

Sometimes the creation is another human being:

Sometimes it’s music:

Sometimes it’s the perfect woman:

Words can also come together to create something unique.

They often merge together to form one word:

fore + play = foreplay

You’d think that when fore and play came together to form one word it would mean before play, like we would say, “Foreplay, I think we should stretch.” But, no; it has an altogether different meaning. (It may still be a good idea to stretch, though.)

Sometimes words come together to form a hyphenated word:

half + mast = half-mast

And sometimes, two words, although they don’t merge into one or use a hyphen, stand side-by-side to create new meaning:

For example, although Bill Clinton was a president with a vice, we wouldn’t call him a vice president.

So, when we’re writing, when do we know if two words make one word, a hyphenated word, or stand side-by-side?

If you’re a linguistics major, you’re in luck. Apparently, compound words of Germanic origin tend to be written as one word. History majors may also have an advantage; the longer the words have been used together, the more likely they are to have merged into one over time.

But, notice I used the words tend to and more likely. There are no set rules.

I mean, why is schoolwork one word, but school day two? Why does mind-boggling have a hyphen, but mind games doesn’t?

I guess that’s the beauty of creation, though, isn’t it? It’s unpredictable. It’s exciting. It’s awe inspiring. Or is that awe-inspiring?

Google, here I come.

Dedicated to Theresa Milstein


Anonymous said...

I never know if a word comes with a hyphen, no hyphen, or just separated but I'm guessing it's not terribly important if there aren't any set rules for every word you encounter. I just go with what looks the best.

Clinton's a president with a vice, ha! That's a good one.

Theresa Milstein said...

Thank you! So it's not just me. It's confusing. Dining room and living room are separated, but then there's bathroom. And don't even get me started on Europeans laughing at us for not calling it the toilet.

Bill Clinton: Vice-President. I like it!

Hannah Kincade said...

I always wonder when or not to hyphenate. It frustrates me to no end.

j.m. neeb said...

In my writers group last night, one of our members had presented a story -- naturally -- and had "back yard" written several times. I circled it and made note of the fact that I thought -- but wasn't positive -- that it should be one word. I made the same note for "show time."

It can be hard to tell, though. That's fore sure. (Okay, bad pun based on your example, but at least you know I'm reading!!)

JEFritz said...

My grammar nerd sense is going wild. The combination of some words and not others is mind boggling, as is those that are stuck together in ways that don't make sense (sweetheart reads like it should have the "th" sound).

If you like this stuff as much as I do, you should check out http://www.etymonline.com/index.php. It's filled with the (sometimes strange) origins of almost any word.

Christopher said...

I just let the squiggly red line on my computer figure it out for me.

Flying high in the sky.... said...

i am not a grammar person at all but you made me read your post!... i was inquisitive about the name .. and then i stumbled upon your post... i think you have done a beautiful job!

Clyde said...

Of course English is the hardest written language in the world.
There, their, they're
To, two, too
Then we have American spelling and English spelling---Check or Cheque
Good post--post on line---post a letter---fence post---sentry post

Hart Johnson said...

*giggles* I LOVE the examples! Then again, I love most ANYTHING that begins with foreplay... I may be wrong, but I think you COULD call Bill Clinton a Vice-President. And I adore how that hyphen suddenly changes the meaning (though get that because Vice President has a specific and often used meaning, people who didn't know I was being a word geek would think I was just making two mistakes). Still, I love language.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Thanks for this. I'm always wondering if I should add a hyphen or not.

Wendy Ramer said...

Excellent questions. I, for one, am prone to over-hyphenating. See?

Talli Roland said...

It's thing like this that totally does my head in when I'm editing. Thank God for the Cambridge Online Dictionary!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Can't answer those question! (And glad I don't have to...)

HulaBuns said...

Foreplay and half-mast, good choices for words to explain. LOL

I think ninja kicks should be one word: ninjakicks.

Great post and thanks for the lesson as always. :)

Meg O. said...

Okay, I'll admit. I'm lost. Fantastic lesson, though. And brilliant reference to Hall & Oates.

Jeffrey Beesler said...

I'm really curious about where to find the origin of Google. How did Google come up with that name? Is it a hybrid of goggle and ogle? This definitely has me scratching my head.

WalksLikeAnEgyptian said...

I once knew a girl that would say something was "mind-bottling."

Now that's some good imagery.

notesfromnadir said...

Thanks for this fascinating post. I didn't realize that about the words of Germanic origin were often written as 1 word.