A Handout About Compound Words

By Mark Nichol

Recently, this text for an online ad caught my attention: “All she asked for was a hand-up, not a hand out.” What struck me was that the copywriter, though I give him or her credit for a clever turn of phrase that pivots on the contrast in meaning between two idioms starting with the root word hand, erred not once but twice in treating those compounds: The sentence should have read, “All she asked for was a hand up, not a handout.”

Why? What’s the difference between open, hyphenated, and closed compounds? This compound error illustrates the distinction. Most compound words start out as two words: Someone introduces an idiom—for example, “We will hand free tickets out” (or, more colloquially, “We will hand out free tickets”). Then, as the more informal variant of this idiom becomes commonplace, people begin to describe such an action as a hand-out. Over time, the now-ubiquitous compound word is treated as a closed compound: handout.

Exceptions exist, however. Some compound words skip the intermediary hyphenation stage, while others never graduate to it; sometimes, the treatment varies for different words with the same second element: For example, the noun makeup evolved from make-up, but mix-up remains hyphenated, though its form may eventually change. However, of the more than one hundred compound words and their variations that begin with hand, none are hyphenated. (Temporary compounds serving as phrasal adjectives, such as in the phrase “hand-picked successor,” are another matter.)

So, why isn’t the compound “hand up” a hyphenated or closed compound? Well, it’s not a compound; it never evolved to that status (we don’t speak or write about a thing called a handup), and it remains simply a noun followed by a preposition. Handout, on the other hand, is a compound noun, though it remains open when employed as a verb phrase, as in the original example (“We will hand out free tickets”).

But shouldn’t the contrasting terms in the ad copy be parallel? Not at all—after all, this is English, a highly flexible language, we’re talking about. The woman pictured in the ad is asking for a hand up—a figurative boost—not for something handed out.

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3 Responses to “A Handout About Compound Words”

  • Graham Downs

    Interesting. I almost always still hyphenate “make-up”. “Makeup” is simply not a word in my mind.

    But in a recent book I wrote, I mentioned “takeaways”. My wife proofread it for me, and she was convinced that that word should be hyphenated. But I grew up with “takeaways” (I vetoed her, and the non-hyphenated word stayed).

    I guess it also has a lot to do with where and how you grew up, and what words you’re used to reading or hearing. :-/

  • Nicholas Rose

    Shouldn’t that be “none is hyphenated”?

  • venqax

    @Nicholas Rose: Check the author’s post under Popular Articles at “7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t” #7 from FebRuary 2011. He ( I am presuming to speak for MN which is very bad manners) is of the None Can Be Used in the Plural Tribe. I, personally, am relatively neutral on this issue. While I recognize that “none are” is regularly employed and has been for a long time, I also see that it really is nonsensical when examined under bright light. Perhaps like you I would at least say “none is…” is preferable in formal use.

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