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Compound Words

February 2, 2015

You know how most people wear multiple hats? And how I’ve shown you my historian hat, my geek hat, my writer hat, and my reader hat?

Yeah, today, you get the editor-linguist hat. For no better reason than this is pretty much ready to go and I’m tired. This blogger is unfortunately only human.*

English is really good at squishing words together to make new words. It’s been doing it since it was Ænglisc, if not before. There are a few ways of doing that—we’re getting a lot of portmanteau words like frenemy and mansplain these days—but one of the best standbys is the compound. Blackbird, brainwash, rocking horse, passenger seat, bookstore, standby, etc.

English is also really, really good at being confusing, because sometimes we write our compounds as one word and sometimes they’re two words, and sometimes those two words look identical to two other words with the same meaning, and how do you know what you’re dealing with and whether you should be sticking a hyphen or a space in there somewhere?

No hyphens. That used to be standard practice. Not so much anymore. And the spaces I actually can’t help you with either, beyond “the dictionary is your friend”, because written English grammar** is confusing and there aren’t really rules.

But there are rules for detecting compounds, because the brain parses nouns differently from adjective-noun pairs, and verbs separately from noun-verb or verb-noun pairs, and so it dumps a bunch of semiconscious info into the space between “think of sentence” and “say sentence”.

Yes, there is an actual linguistics degree in my past. Yes, I’m decidedly uncool. Moving on.

Say the following out loud:

A crow is a black bird, not a blackbird.

Take the paper back and bring me a paperback.

The President moved from the White House to a white house.

Igor, find me a brain, wash it, and report for your brainwashing session.

I can’t stand by while she’s bleeding, even if I’m on standby!

Hear the difference?

Every phrase in English has a word that’s more important than the others. Nouns are important in noun phrases, adjectives are important in adjectival phrases, and so on. The important words get stressed, and English tends to put that stress on the first syllable, if the word has several syllables.

Basically, we know White House is a single word because we say WHITE house not white HOUSE.

If you’re still confused, here’s another tip: you can’t change part of a compound without making it sound ridiculous, strange, un-English. There is no such thing as a high jumprope or a rocked horse. Nobody lives in the Whiter House. I can’t describe my apartment as living room, bathroom, and bed one.

Then again, there is the particular ambiguous glory of secondhand bookstore, so my rules aren’t … exactly rules?

English is confusing. I love it.


* This blogger does not want immortality, superpowers, magical talents, uplift, cybernetic implants, or anything else that would change her human status, but thanks for the offer anyway.

** The punctuation stuff, as opposed to mental English grammar which is the actual, important word order, verb inflection, stress patterns stuff that lets us communicate.

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