Car-Wreck Compounds

By Mark Nichol

You see them everyday, whenever you login to a Web site or rollover an ad: what should be open compounds suffering from the compositional equivalent of a roadway rear-ender. The error of writing “everyday” (an adjective meaning “ordinary”) when you mean “every day” (synonymous with “each day”) has already been covered in another post, but this mistake is common with verbs, too.

When you go to a Web site and type your username and password, you are logging in, so you should style the verb “log in” — similar to the verb phrase “check in.” By the same token, when you glide your cursor over an online ad to activate it, you’re rolling over it, so the phrase is written “roll over.” (Think about it: When you stumble to avoid a feline on a beeline, you don’t fallover.)

Oooh! Oooh! Oooh! Yes, I see you there in the front row, wildly waving your upraised hand. I know what you’re going to say: “But we see them like that all the time!” That’s why I call them viral car-wreck compounds: Back when the Internet was young, someone unfamiliar with the niceties of verb phrases, someone perhaps more at ease with programming languages than the magnificent mess we call English, once developed a Web site that directed visitors to “login.” More recently, when the first interactive ad was enabled, a programmer incorrectly typed the command “rollover.”

But wait – does this mean that “login” and “rollover” aren’t real words? Sure they are — they’re nouns. Your username and password comprise your login, and your cursor’s ad-surfing motion is a rollover. They’re equivalent in structure to the two other closed compounds I used in the sentence preceding this one.

Then, others saw the train-wreck treatments but reiterated them, mistaking the labels “login” and “rollover” for the directives “log in” and “roll over” without recognizing the mistake, and the clunky compounds were unwittingly compounded. (That’s the very definition of a virus — a self-replicating error.)

But that magnificent mess we call English changes its rules all the time, you persist. Yes, it does. But don’t capitulate before it’s time. That’s why we have manuals of best practices like “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.” (The former — cue gritting teeth — defends the validity of “alright,” for example, but has resisted conceding to “alot.”) For the sake of professional pride, we must agree to codified consistency until the walls are breached. For my part, you’ll have to roll over my dead body (after, of course, you log in).

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26 Responses to “Car-Wreck Compounds”

  • Cecily

    Alright is different from alot, because the former is standard in BrE (though not AmE), whereas the latter is not standard in either.

  • Cecily

    And “altogether” is standard in both.

  • YukiKabuki

    “On line/Online” & “Log In/Login” are the two hardest compounds for me as I’m a website administrator not an English major. So, with that being said, am I to understand as a verb it should be “log in” and as a noun it should be “login”?

    I must log in to the website.
    I can’t remember my login.

    I think that I get that one. But, the other still baffles me. Can you please clarify and use some examples?

  • Robin

    Your ending gave me a good chuckle! I enjoyed reading your post, Mark.

  • Al

    Thank you for the post. In my case, not being a native english speaker, is difficult to pick up on these mistakes.
    I already changed my website.

  • Rebecca

    I often wondered about “login or log in.” It can be be confusing. This is why it’s important to have a dictionary that’s up-to-date.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m waiting for the day that “alot” becomes acceptable, because I really want to eliminate that space! Meanwhile, I’m behaving and biding my time, still writing/typing/texting “a lot.” As far as “alright,” that construction really hurts my eyes, so even if you say it’s become acceptable, I will probably continue to use “all right,” or better yet, “OK” (as opposed to “okay,” and what is with that anyway? “Okay” is not alright, all right or OK in my book!)

  • David

    Hear hear! This one constantly gets to me, but 99% of our lovely online illiterates have no clue.

    @thebluebird11: Perish the thought! “Alot” is not and will never be acceptable, which is perfectly okay in my book.

  • Bradlee the Dawg

    Uh… you mean “You see them every day” NOT “You see them everyday..” Didn’t we just go over that? Or were you making a funny… or what?

  • Nan Roberts

    In journalism school we used the Merriam-WEbster paperback (we carried it in our packs) and the AP Style book (we also carried them with us everywhere we went, and would drag them out in other classes, especially English classes.) I don’t recal that AP ever approved alright, but I’d have to go back and look. Chicago approves other things that are, um, not right. But I agree, it takes time and patience to adjust to these changes, or better to adjust these changes to us.

  • Allusion

    @Cecily
    Although the argument about the acceptance of “alright” as a correct word, let alone the acceptance of it as formal, continues, there is no valid dictionary says that this word is ALWAYS standard, i.e. formal. Here is what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says about this word in terms of usage: “the spelling alright is less common than all right and is regarded by some people as an error. It occurs mainly in informal writing”. Considering usage discussion, it says: “The one-word spelling alright appeared some 75 years after all right itself had reappeared from a 400-year-long absence. Since the early 20th century some critics have insisted alright is wrong, but it has its defenders and its users. It is less frequent than all right but remains in common use especially in journalistic and business publications. It is quite common in fictional dialogue, and is used occasionally in other writing “the first two years of medical school were alright” — Gertrude Stein”. The usage note of Dictionary.com says: “The form alright as a one-word spelling of the phrase all right in all of its senses probably arose by analogy with such words as already and altogether. Although alright is a common spelling in written dialogue and in other types of informal writing, all right is used in more formal, edited writing”. It is worth mentioning that Longman’s and Cambridge’s dictionaries have a peaceful attitude towards this noisy “alright” by defining it as another spelling of “all right”. Nonetheless, Cambridge Dictionary of American English rebells against this peace agreement in a loud voice: “NOT STANDARD” !

    The brief conclusion to be drawn from such vocabulary-centered fights (or wars if you like) is that words, phrasal verbs, and idioms CAN inter the dictionary BY FORCE- that is, to continue struggling and surviving linguistic environments and to be ever used by imaginative social animals.

    Regards,
    Allusion

  • Cecily

    Allusion, everything you say is correct, but your sources are American. My point is that “alright” is the norm in British English (a few people object to its use in formal writing, but it is commonly used in that as well). We may share a language, but it is not the same. 😉

  • Andee

    A way to tell the difference between the compound, noun forms and the open, verb forms of the words is to make the verb past tense. (I find this works often when part of speech is in question)

    “I logged in to the system.” or “I loginned to the system.”

    “I rolled over the ad.” or “I rollovered the ad.”

    In both cases, the open version makes sense, but the closed version just sounds silly.

    On the alright/all right issue…alright is just all wrong IMO.

  • YukiKabuki

    @Andee-
    Thank you soooooo much for your clarification. Your example really helps and I can easily remember it.

  • Mark Nichol

    YukiKabuki:

    Your understanding of the distinction between “log in” (v.) and “login” (n.) is correct, and my point about “roll over” (v.) and “rollover” (n.) is identical. Here are other examples:

    * A corporation can buy back its stocks as part of a buyback strategy. (Notice that because they are nouns, these closed compounds can generally serve as adjectives, too.)
    * An aborigine walks about on his walkabout.
    * A pilot flies over on a flyover.

    Beware of compounds like “shout-out,” though. The common progression for compounds is open, hyphenated, and closed, but some never achieve closure.

  • Gwen S.

    Another car-wreck compound I’ve been seeing a lot lately is the lack of differentiation between in to and into. Too many writers don’t seem to realize they mean different things. Ach!

  • Garrison

    It is important to remember that the Dictionary only reports the current meaning and usage of a word and is not an authoritative source for the “correct” usage of words. Dictionary definitions are frequently WRONG.

    That said, words and their meanings change. All compound words started out as non-compound words. In many cases the compound version of the word is all that remains.

    Words used in service of a particular technology or specialty are often compounds that have little or no meaning outside of that specialty. Daily language is full of words of “fuzzy” pedigree. Even formal language can be vague and “fuzzy.”

    Example: “I read Shakespeare in high school.” A perfectly legitimate sentence. Unless Shakespeare had some verbose tattoos and went to high school, the meaning of that sentence is up for grabs. But, you know what it means and I know what it means so we continue to be less precise.

    Perhaps Shakespeare had some meaningful freckles.

    Language is not an absolute. It all means what we agree it means. The less we agree on a meaning, the less meaning there will be.

  • Mark Nichol

    Garrison:

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, dictionaries are descriptive, reflecting the state of the language, rather than prescriptive, codifying how language should be used — as are style guides such as “The Chicago Manual of Style.” (Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” is the exemplar of prescriptive authority.) Unfortunately, they can’t keep as current as we would like, and, yes, we sometimes shake our heads at their perceptions.

    But these language authorities help us temporarily freeze our lexicon and its architecture in time so that we are all, so to speak, on the same page. Regardless, you can customize your style. Most publishers do, to some extent, employing what are called house style guides, which document their variations from the current code. But be sure you have a good reason to diverge from the consensus.

  • Mark Nichol

    Andee:

    Thanks for sharing your past-tense test for proper compound style. Tools like these are useful when it’s otherwise difficult to keep the rules straight.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mr. Dawg:

    Yes, I deliberately incorrectly closed up “every day,” “log in,” and “roll over” in the first sentence. Each was a funny. I’m funny that way.

  • Kitty Wheat

    Speaking of “altogether,” I’m reminded that some people don’t know when to use “altogether” and when to use “all together,” because they don’t know that the former means “entirely,” whereas the latter means everybody together. Another pair that often befuddles some people has to do with the difference between “already” and “all ready.” One easy way to differentiate the two is to put the pair in this test context: I have ______ seen that movie twice. The case is clear that only “already” makes sense, whereas “all ready” can make sense only in this context: We are ______ to leave, referring to the extent of readiness, rather than experience.

  • Nan Roberts

    What gets me is “backyard” and “backseat”. They used to be two words and I see no reason why they shouldn’t continue to be two words.

  • thebluebird11

    @ Nan: I agree, especially since we never see “frontyard” or “frontseat”!

  • Mary Hodges

    @Nan: In UK English “backseat” and “frontseat” can be used as adjectives.

    Examples: We talk about “a backseat driver” meaning someone who while not actually driving, criticises the way a vehilce is being driven.

    Likewise “the frontseat passenger was not injured ibn the crash.”
    Neiither of these would make sense as two separate words.

  • Cecily

    Mary, I’m in the UK too, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen backseat and frontseat written as single words.

    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary only lists them as hyphenated compounds (though I have seen them written without):

    The back-seat driver kept giving instructions.
    The front-seat passenger was not injured.

  • Nan Roberts

    Yeah, they should be compound adjectives here, too. But I remember using “back seat driver” in the dim olden days. It’s odd, and every time I see backseat and backyard, it just bugs me. Though I have a list of other words, too.

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