Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Hyphens – part 5: compound nouns

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Should compound nouns be hyphenated?

A compound noun (or ‘noun compound’ as the Oxford Dictionary of English has it) is a noun made up of two or more words.

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut rules to follow, and in many cases a compound noun can be two words with a hyphen, two words without a hyphen, or two words run together. For example, all of the following are correct:

  • air-stream
  • air stream
  • airstream

Dictionaries may list only one option, but this does not necessarily mean that other versions of the compound noun are wrong. Here are a few examples:

  • boatman
  • greatcoat
  • cookhouse
  • anti-hero
  • fund-raiser
  • goody-goody
  • air pistol
  • high chair
  • hook nose

Compound nouns made up of three words will often take hyphens, for example: 

  • man-of-war
  • sister-in-law (plural: sisters-in-law)
  • good-for-nothing (this is also an adjective as in: ‘a good-for-nothing wastrel’)
  • no-man’s-land

But, as ever with hyphens, there is no hard and fast rule; ‘prisoner of war’, for example, is frequently written without hyphens.

Hyphens to help avoid confusion

Hyphens and numbers

Hyphens and compass points

Hyphens to separate identical letters

Hyphens and compound adjectives

Hyphens and ‘un’ words

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2 Responses

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  1. How about healthcare, health-care, and health care? I see all three here — more often the first one — and sometimes in the same article. Govt and medical sources tend to use it unified.

    Michael Farrell

    09/03/2010 at 5:02 pm

    • Yes — that’s a tricky one. The Oxford Dictionary of English has it as two words (but ‘a health-care professional’). Choose one version and stick with it, I’d say.


      09/03/2010 at 5:16 pm

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