Compound Words in Technological Contexts

By Mark Nichol

“Cell phone,” or cellphone? “Home page,” or homepage? “Touch screen,” or touchscreen? Should such compounds be open, or closed? We see them both ways, so it’s difficult to know how to treat them — unless you use one simple test: Choose the form based on the context.

The natural progression for styling compound words is open to closed, often (but not always) with a hyphenated form as an interim phase. No ruling body authorizes the transformation, and no pattern or logic regarding the time frame applies from one compound to another. Some compounds stubbornly resist closing (“real estate”) or cling to their hyphens (mind-set), but closure is almost invariably inevitable.

Thus, for example, “sea water” at some arbitrary point transformed into seawater, with a transitional period in which both forms were commonly used, followed by preponderant use of the new form (though the old form nearly always persists to some extent).

Technological terms are a special case, for various reasons, including that they are coined by technologically minded people, who are not necessarily concerned about adherence to grammatical norms, and that, in the case of programming vocabulary, the practical issue of having a single string of characters to enter into a program is integral. Therefore, compounds referring to technological devices and procedures are likely to begin life as closed compounds or to be adopted in technological contexts in closed form.

And that’s the key to knowing how to treat them: In general-purpose publications, you’ll likely see “file name” and “screen saver” and “voice mail,” whereas in high-tech periodicals and on high-tech websites, you’ll probably find filename and screensaver and voicemail. (There are exceptions of course; note that on this site, I have reluctantly adopted website in place of “Web site,” and I have always preferred email to e-mail.) Consider your audience, and style technological terms as appropriate. And when in doubt, depending on the context in which you are writing or editing, consult mainstream or specialized publications for models.

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15 Responses to “Compound Words in Technological Contexts”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “The natural progression for styling compound words is open to closed.” This is possibly true (partially), but notice these:
    In some older publications (e.g. 70 years ago), especially British ones, we can see “no-one”, but that one experience a well-deserved death long ago. We never see this one in modern publications. Also, in North America (not a euphemism for the United States**), at least, we use “nobody” all the time. Furthermore, “no-one” and then “noone” look too much like the proper name “Noone”. You’ve never heard of it? Then look it up. It is pronounced like “noon”.

    Also, there is an old British novel of some popularity named “Lassie Come-home”, in which the hyphen is there for no particular reason, and nobody ever hypenates “come home” anymore.

    There are plenty of other compound words that will remain hyphenated “forever”, and for good reasons. Here is an example:
    re-sign, which cannot become “resign” without causing a lot of confusion. Here was the title line above an article on the Internet:
    “Atlanta Braves resign Maddux for $10,000,000”.
    Huh? Who resigned from what? President Nixon resigned during his second term in office, and Vice-President Spiro Agneu had already resigned because of some other legal problems.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    **”North America” is not a euphemism for the United States because other English-speaking coutries in North America include Canada, the Bahamas, Belize, Jamaica, and several other islands in the Caribbean Sea. Note: Especially CANADA, since Canada has a large English-speaking population (e.g. larger than Australia does) as well as large French-speaking & bilingual populations, mostly in Quebec.
    Also, notice that English is widely-spoken in northern Mexico (by bilingual people), in Panama, and in Puerto Rico, likewise.
    Also notice the British Virgin Islands, where everyone speaks English and the standard unit of currency is the American dollar, and not the pound sterling, the Canadian dollar, the Bahamian dollar, or the West Indian dollar.
    Also, the American dollar is widely used in Panama, where it is the second form of currency and probably the most common one.
    I have never had any trouble spending “Yankee” dollars in northern Mexico or in the Bahamas while I was there on brief trips.

    When I went on vacation in Canada, I got some Canadian money at the bank to use there, and I also used my VISA card for a lot of things. I wanted to be more than courteous to the Canadians since I was staying there for a while, and the Canadians were quite courteous to me, also. I cannot praise them enough. I probably could have gotten by with “Yankee” dollars the whole time, but I didn’t want to.

    D.A.W.

  • No_imaginative_nickname

    Unfortunately, this technological usage is becoming increasingly common in other areas, such as “in the backyard” instead of “back yard,” “on the frontporch” instead of “front porch” and “available instore” instead of “in [the] store.” Nowadays few people bother to learn logical rules, relying instead [in stead?] on the if-I-see-it-somewhere–once-it-must-be-okay-anywhere-always theory.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There are some words in English that are never used in closed compounds, or in a certain position in compound words. This became salient in my mind when I saw “selfportrait” on the Internet recently. Fortunately, I was able to get the e-mail address of that person, and I wrote her to say “No, never! Always write self-portrait.”

    As best as I can tell, “self” is never used in the beginning of a compound word, and I gave her a list of examples such as these:
    {self-aware, self-conscious, self-defense, self-destruction, self-educated, self-immolation (!), self-limited, self-made, self-opening,
    self-serving, self-starting, self-stopping, self-sufficient, self-written }

    In contrast, “self” or “selves” often appear as the final part of compound words, e.g. {myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves}.

    Watch out for foreign writers (especially Continental Europeans) who want to treat English as an aggluterizing language like German, Finnish, or Turkish. English is not this way. Sometimes they see an exceptional case in a compound word, and they think that ALL English words are like that, but this is not true. Sometimes I write them to tell them that they have stumbled upon an exceptional case, but all of the words are not like that.
    All words in English are not like “magnetohydrodynamics”. They are much more commonly like “nuclear magnetic resonance”.

    Words in English are definitely not like “Farbfernsehgeraet”, which is the German for “color television set”.
    D.A.W.

  • Corey Tomlinson

    I’ve found that referencing questionably compound words in an established stylebook (style book?) such as AP is an incredibly helpful practice. As with all writing, it’s a matter of consistent usage and applying as much logic as is humanly possible.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “If-I-see-it-somewhere–once-it-must-be-okay-anywhere-always theory.”

    This is one reason why college nowadays (and for at least 30 years) have had to institute (and require) courses in “critical thinking”.

    I went to school in a poor state (Alabama) w/o the best schools, but I still learned critical thinking in the normal course of things in elementary school, in junior high school, and in high school. When I went to junior high school and we started having different courses (and teachers), six per day, I started learning critical thinking mostly in English classes (tied for number one), mathematics classes (tied for number one), social studies classes, mechanical drawing (two years worth).

    The performance in science classes concerning critical thinking was spotty. There was some in my chemistry and physics courses, but earlier it was quite poor both in general science courses, and in biology. For example (remember: this was in the Deep South), the Theory of Evolution was not mentioned even once, not even in biology. Besides leading to a lot of critiical thinking, the Theory of Evolution ties everything together in biology — as opposed to presenting this subject as 100,000 unrelated facts. Biology was very annoying because there wasn’t any Big Picture in the subject. That’s a shame.

    I like to see the Big Picture in any subject that I study, and we did learn math, chemistry, and physics in a unifed way — and then we unified them even more in calculus, chemistry, and physics courses during the first two years of college. Because of all of this, it is little wonder that I became an engineer, and specifically an electrical engineer (which has many unifying facts), and then a specialist in the systems engineering of large radio communication systems, such as satellite networks.
    Looking at the Big Picture as an electrical engineer is what I do and what I enjoy doing. I also took a lot of graduate courses in mathematics that have a strong systems orientation. That’s what I like.

    Oh, well, looking at the Big Picture of things is the perfect place to do critical thinking, though it can be done at the lower levels, too.

    I have never taken a course in Critical Thinking, but I have never needed one, either. I learned this material elsewhere, just like people did 200 years ago. I had never even heard of a course in Critical Thinking until I had completed my master’s degree already (1980).
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    style book! style book! style book! Use this phrase.

    “Style” is another of those words that never appears as the first half of a closed compound, and I doubt that it appears in that position in hyphenated compounds.

    However, there is the word “self-styled” to tie this with my earlier note.

    As for closed or hyphenated compounds with “style” in the second position, we have these, for example:
    { American-style, countrystyle, Egyptian-style, Greek-style, hairstyle, homestyle, native-style, natural-style, opera-style, Prussian-style**, Renaissance-style, Southern-style***, Texas-style, Victorian-style, Western-style, Yankee-style }

    **As in a “Prussian-style school”. Believe it or not, most of the educational systems in American were modeled after the schools in the German-speaking countries that later became Germany and Austria. These included Prussia, Bavaria, Hannover, the Saarland, Westphalia, the classic Kingdom of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, etc.

    I was rather surprised to read recently that the existence of the United States and of the Holy Roman Empire overlapped in history, and by quite a few decades. I wonder if we ever exchanged embassadors.
    In other words, when the United States was founded in the 18th Century, the Holy Roman Empire still existed, and it did not collapse and disappear until sometime in the first half of the 19th Century.
    Then, Germany did not exist as a unified country, an empire, until about 1872. Its first monarch was Kaiser Wilhelm I, and then his only successor was his son Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom we should be familiar because he ruled the Empire while it was at war with the United States during half of 1917 and most of 1918. Then when Germany was defeated in November 1918, the German Empire fell apart, never to appear again. It was the First Reich. Germany has been a democratic Federal Republic since about 1947.

    ***We are going to have Southern-style breakfast, including GRITS, biscuits, gravy, sausage, eggs cooked to order, and pancakes if you want them. If you won’t eat your grits, then you can’t have it!
    D.A.W.

  • Amber Polo

    Great post to simplify the point.
    Remember:
    on line
    on-line
    online

  • Nelida K.

    @Dale A. Wood: Regarding your sentence:

    “Also, notice that English is widely-spoken in northern Mexico”

    I believe that in this case, “widely spoken” does not require a hyphen. A “widely-spoken” language, but “a language is widely spoken”.

    IMHO.

  • Curtis

    @D.A.W. —

    You missed one —

    GANGNAM-STYLE!

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW:
    1. Caution: This site is full of people who are real sticklers for proper grammar, spelling and punctuation.
    2. I am one of them.
    3. Your posts contain too many errors to mention, but I will make an exception ane mention one (#4 below).
    4. Aggluterizing??

  • thebluebird11

    …and I will apologize quickly and humbly for my typo, which occurred because all those errors made my eyes spin out of their sockets. Figuratively speaking.

  • Sally

    @thebluebird
    Well spotted – you pre-empted me on ‘aggluterizing.”

    It’s ‘agglutinative’ – and while I’m a spelling-nazi (should that be hyphenated? *giggles*) in my professional capacity, I’m a bit more understanding in online forums.

    @ D.A.W.
    German is not strictly an agglutinative language – it’s an inflectional language that makes compound words.

    Finnish and Turkish, however, *are* agglutinative, as you say.

    @ Mark
    ‘Seawater’ is still a two-word phrase here in Oz (Australia).

  • thebluebird11

    @Sally: I’m heartless all the time LOL. On the job (have to be, in my line of work), in restaurants with sloppily-proofread menus, in love-letters from would-be suitors, and especially in this forum. I am mortified when I spot my own mistakes, hang my head in shame and apologize (as I did above). I know nothing about the German, Finnish and Turkish languages, and don’t even understand what you’re talking about (agglutinative, inflectional) although I wish I did, but I spotted that nonexistent word immediately and was kind of riled anyway, so…I probably only beat you to it because of the time zones LOL. No worries!

  • John Wilson

    Couple thoughts on this one:
    Cellphone, homepage, and touchscreen are all concrete. They have become a specific thing and most people think of them that way. May be an accident of the examples, but all are a modifier and a noun.

    Real estate is abstract and you have to think why ‘real’ modifies ‘estate’ and figure out the implication of ‘estate.’ What ‘realestate’ means is even more problematic. I wouldn’t bet on this one compounding. We seem to be jumping to ‘realty.”

    Mind-set is abstract and doesn’t mean the same thing in all contexts. Not sure why a compound form would be natural or useful. Implies a specificity that wouldn’t apply. I hope this one doesn’t compound.

    I suspect that techno terms compound, not because they are techno but because they represent things that become progressively more concrete and ordinary. ‘Horseless carriage’ was fine when most carriages had horses; ‘automobile’ generalized the concept, ‘car’ cut it by three syllables. Frequency of use demanded a noun that was more concrete and ordinary.

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