Should “Light Bulb” Be One Word, or Two?

By Mark Nichol

Why do most people spell “light bulb” like that, as an open compound? Because most dictionaries treat it that way. But the dictionary used by most American publishing companies and periodicals as the resource of record, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and its online equivalent, spell it as a closed compound. Despite that fact, even in books, magazines, and newspapers, and on professional websites, many of which presumably adhere to Merriam-Webster, I often see it styled “light bulb.”

If it’s usually spelled that way, even in well-edited publications, why doesn’t Merriam-Webster cave in? Decisions by descriptivist dictionaries about how to render words are based on popular usage, but because dictionary staff have tens of thousands of words to monitor, there’s often a lag of years before these references update a word’s spelling or definition according to a shift in usage.

Eventually, therefore, Merriam-Webster will likely treat lightbulb as two words. Is that a problem? Well, words frequently undergo alterations, but this one is anomalous, because the trend in word compounds is that they normally begin in open form. Then, they may or may not have a transitional hyphenated form before (usually but not always) becoming closed compounds. Here, the process has reversed itself.

I can’t hold back the tide, but I can do what any conscientious (and sensible) editor does: I minimize exceptions — unless a writer or a project editor strongly prefers the variant. Otherwise, how do I form the term? Lightbulb, because I consult Merriam-Webster’s, and that’s how it’s treated in that resource. What do I do if I see it spelled “light bulb” in a manuscript I’m editing? I correct it. Consistency is a hallmark of high-quality writing, and contributing to high-quality writing is my responsibility as an editor (and yours as a writer).

Is this a lot of trouble over one word (or is it two words)? I don’t dwell on it; this discussion is merely intended to provide an example for a lesson for writers: Today, do things the way you did them yesterday, and tomorrow, do the same. Break rules as necessary, of course, but you should know them before you break them, and if you do break them, have a good reason to do so.

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27 Responses to “Should “Light Bulb” Be One Word, or Two?”

  • Susan Uttendorfsky

    Ugh, open and closed compound nouns. Humdrum, hangout, bedsheets, boom box (is two words!), cornball, courtroom, and lifeblood are the ones I’ve looked up just in the last week for my most recent copy editing project. Thankfully I take them off each style sheet and make myself a cheat sheet style sheet so I don’t have to look them up *again*, but when M-W comes out with a new edition, I’ll have to look them all up all over again!

  • Nann Dunne

    Susan, would you care to share that M-W cheat sheet with pruferblue at aol dot com? Open and closed compounds and hyphenated words cause more lookups for me than anything else. Clients are in general so will-nilly about it that I’ve told some of them to hyphenate everything and I’ll fix it in the edit. Regrettably, I haven’t been wise enough to make a cheat sheet.

  • Joeth Barlas

    Delightful post! Your point is clear and compelling. Thanks.

  • Nann Dunne

    Of course, I meant willy-nilly. My “y” key sticks sometimes.

  • Bill

    When I worked for the Associated Press in 2002, their style guide had website as two words, with “Web” up: Web site. I can’t imagine anyone, even them, doing it that way, though they did still hyphenate teenager.

  • Tim Slager

    “Eventually, therefore, Merriam-Webster will likely treat lightbulb as two words.”

    M-W may be ahead of the curve on this. The trend seems to be from two words to hyphenated words to closed compounds (sometimes skipping the hyphenated stage). Note “teenager” and “website” mentioned by other posters.

    I’m guessing a more accurate statement would be “Eventually, therefore, other style guides will likely follow Merriam-Webster’s lead.”

  • Linda Yezak

    Compounds always get me. Is it seat belt or seatbelt? Rear view mirror, or rearview? Voice mail or voicemail? I admit, I cheat. If the little red squiggly line shows up under it, I often divide the words instead of looking them up. Or sometimes I get belligerent and add my version of the compound to the internal dictionary. So there.

  • Pat Leyden

    I just checked website for light bulb vendors, who all refer to their product as “light bulb”. I’m staying with 2 words until they change!

  • Freeman Presson

    Check Google. ‘+lightbulb -“light bulb”‘ gets 273 hits, ‘”light bulb” -lightbulb ‘ gets 49,500,000. I am a very literate 63-year-old native English speaker, and I had never seen “lightbulb” before this post.

  • Sharon

    It would never, ever have occurred to me to make “light bulb” into one word. Not that I use the term often, but to me it is and should be two words.

    Voicemail, yes, one word. Seat belt, two words. Lunchbox and lunchroom, just one. Cheat sheet, two! Good to think about.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Linda Yezek: You are missing something. Sometimes in English we have two forms that are equally valid. Just take your personal choice or flip a coin as to which to use, but then be consistent. E.g. voicemail or voice mail: nobody cares. Also, we have some words that can be spelled one of two ways, such as “judgment” and “judgement”. Furthermore, sometimes the closed compound is used for the adjective or adverb, but then two words are used for the noun. Two examples of this are “anytime” and “any time”; and “sometime” and “some time”. Just take some time to think about that, and then it will come to you sometime.

    Letting spell-checkers dictate to you which form of these to use (this general sort of thing) is a mistake because spell-checkers are so very often WRONG. I often use a spell-checker that does not recognize the word “gauge”, and it suggests substituting “gage” – which is an archai word no longer used for much.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Bill: Regardless of what the Associated Press and others say, “Web” is short for “World Wide Web”, and “World Wide Web” is a proper noun. Hence, reducing “Web site” to “website” is cutting a proper noun down to a common noun.
    That is dumb linguistically, and it is also insulting to all of the talented engineers, computer scientists, and mathematicians who made the World Wide Web and the Internet what we have now: a wonder of civilization.
    Oh, well, so few people are unwilling to give credit where credit is due. They just want to take the benefits and appreciate no one.
    At least some people still want to credit James Watt with the steam engine and Henry Ford for mass-producing the car and the Wright Brothers for the airplane.
    Others do not even want to capitalize TV, CD, FM, IBM, RCA, and BBC. They’re just too lazy, and they take everything for granted.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is an instance of a compound word that died out over 70 years ago. Some old books and magazines used “no-one” and even “noone”. Those died a justificable death, and we use “no one”.

    Here is another example of a word with two valid spellings:
    “acknowledgement” and “acknowledgment”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “because dictionary staff have tens of thousands of words” is completely untenable because the word “staff” is singular. It even has a plural, “staffs”.
    Hence, you must use “the members of the dictionary staff”.

    Uses of the word “staffs”: “The staffs of the chairman of the board and the president held a joint New Year’s party.”
    “The joint staffs of the U.S. Air Force and the R.A.F. worked together to help the hungry children of West Germany.”

  • Nelson Carter

    Dale: When you wrote “so few people are unwilling to give credit”, did you mean “so few people are willing to give credit”?

  • Graeme Creed

    I don’t have a view on light bulb, lightbulb however when reading this post the word “spelled” really grated. I have since discovered that this is mainly an American usage. Coming from Australia the usage is “spelt”.

  • Phil Radler

    I’m with Dale Wood on “Web site”; I always expect that misbegotten term “website” to rhyme with “subsidy.” And that subtle distinction regarding “sometime” should not be ignored. As to “lightbulb,” my online Webster’s Collegiate says it is one word, but the adjacent Webster’s Unabridged shows “light bulb”! Fun stuff.

    AP has surrendered to convenience by eschewing another meaningful linguistic difference, that between “under way” (The attack is under way) and “underway” (The attacking aircraft need underway refueling). But what might one expect from an outfit that hyphenated “teenager”?

    Finally: I believe that standard American usage favors “judgment” and “acknowledgment”; the charming Brits have retained the “e,” but they also spell “colour” with a “u” . . .

  • kim

    I get so confused at times that I’m certain I over-hyphenate.

  • venqax

    @kim: I sympathize. Try writing into a paper bag. 🙂 Or is it a paperbag…

  • venqax

    Sometimes in English we have two forms that are equally valid. Just take your personal choice or flip a coin as to which to use, Not so much as you’d think. Like you say later, more often than not there is at least a “preferred” spelling and the difference is often dialectical. If I were editing an American, I would change judgement to judgment, because the second is the American spelling. Judgement may not generally be wrong, but in American English I would say it is. Just like the color/colour difference. It is not “coin flip” choice. There usually is a right spelling and a wrong one , it’s just that in some cases it depends on context.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There was an S.F. novel that was Printed in the U.S.A. under the title ALL JUDGEMENT FLED. As it so happened, the author of the book was James White, a prominent author from Northern Ireland. Very curious.

    It seems that “judgement” is used in the U.S.A. after all. We can also find books and movies named JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG sometimes, and JUDGMENT AT NURMBERG sometimes. A curious thing about this one is that one of its actors was the great Canadian actor William Shatner as a young man. He was born in 1931 and this movie was published in 1961.

    I am now coping with a nonfiction book that is plainly labeled PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, but it is full of word that end in “our”, and it even has words in it that I have never heard of – British words, because the author Ian Stewart is British.
    Since this book is copyrighted, printed, and sold in the United States, is that not justification – for a book on nonfiction – in changing the text into American English? Personally, I think that the editor and the publisher were just plain lazy.

    By the way, the “berg” in Nuremberg and Heidelberg has a different meaning from the “burg” in Hamburg and Brandenburg.
    There is also a city named Strassburg in German but Strassbourg in French.

  • Dale A. Wood

    No, what I meant to write was “so many people are unwilling to give credit”. Thank you for the correction.
    The key is that this phrase needs to have “unwilling” in it because that implies deliberate stubborness. It is not a case of mere carelessness.

  • Nick Trusiewicz

    This is a very unfortunate topic.

    My Merriam-Webster Ninth New Collegiate separates the two words. So Merriam-Webster seems to have turned to omitting the space recently.

    The free Oxford online uses separate words, but allows for “lightbulb” as an alternative. For that matter, my spell checker does not accept the joined words as a valid spelling. This article is the first time I have seen the words joined.

    The colloquial form “lightbulb” has been defined as “an inbred child that has a massive forehead” by urbandictionary.com. One would not want to give cause for confusion on this!

    I have no quarrel with those who wish to use them as one word, although I would certainly stumble over it, assuming a typographical error, but I would object to having an overzealous editor “correct” based on this thin an argument.

    I would have to see it as an exclusive spelling in the OED to deign to correct such a widely accepted usage.

  • venqax

    DAW: Yes. I would say that the book being published in the US would make Americanizing the spelling ok, but not necessary. The author is the key. If a British author writes a book, I’d expect him to use proper BE, and for that to be left as such when published in the US, etc., is perfectly acceptable. Differences in vocabulary or grammar might be treated differently from those of spelling because the first two might actually obfuscate meaning or seem awkard, whereas some simple extra letters thrown in here and there probably wouldn’t. Similar, really, to whether or not you would use subtitles on a British movie in the US, or vice versa. Unless the audience is going to have genuine trouble understanding the dialogue, I would say no. When I read a Brit author, I’m occasionally stopped-short by a “you already have done”, instead of just “you already have”, or someone eating soggy chips (ugh!), but only mildly. And a yellow-coloured kerb doesn’ even blip on my screen.

    Now someone going to gaol still bugs me for the wrong reasons, when they say lives in Ball Street it makes me nervous for them, and telling a girl you’ll knock her up tomorrow still seems a bit pretentious….

  • D.A.W.

    “Similar, really, to whether or not you would use subtitles on a British movie in the U.S., or vice versa.”

    There was a very amusing episode of the American TV series ALL IN THE FAMILY. In this one, Edith Bunker made friends with a new couple in the neighborhood: a husband and wife who were into going to artistic movie houses, etc. They invited Edith to go to a movie with them, but Archie Bunker did not want to go. When the three got back, the man, who was a jolly fellow, decided to have some fun with Archie.
    He told Archie that they had gone to a foreign film, and there weren’t any subtitles, and they could hardly understand a word of it. Archie asked him what country the movie had come from. The jolly fellow told Archie, “Oh, it was a BRITISH MOVIE!”

    The two women just remained silent and smiled about the situation, but Archie was annoyed about the whole thing. You would have had to seen ALL IN THE FAMILY to understand what Archie was like when he was annoyed. It was very funny.

    I have always imagined that Edith Bunker and her friends had gone to see a movie about lower-class English people with odd accents – especially to American ears – such as Cockneys. Since then, I have gotten warnings from a Englishman NOT to watch some British TV shows beacause, “You would not be able to understand them!” My friend is from East Yorkshire, and according to him people who live in places like Newcastle speak quite a bit differently, as do the people around London, and so forth. I am just taking his word for it because I have never been to the U.K. at all.
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    When the Australian movie MAD MAX was first distributed in the United States, the owners decided that there would be a large amount of trouble with American audiences understanding its huge amount of Australian (lower-class) slang.

    Hence, the producers had nearly all of the voices dubbed in by American actors – even the voice of Mad Max – Mel Gibson – himself.

    Within several months, the producers decided that the dubbing of the voices was unnecessary, so they got rid of it. Every time that I have watched MAD MAX on TV, it has been the original, unchanged movie from Australia. The vast majority of us do not have any trouble understanding it.
    D.A.W.

  • JonnyDeath

    At my age it has always been lightbulb.
    Unfortunately British English has been intruding on American English for the last several years and because it targets our youth this maneuver has been very successful. I’m 37 so I constantly see examples of our dialect being manipulated. Blond is often corrected to blonde, which is incorrect, but google has partial spelling and grammar functions creating a lot of friction between generations by imposing British English on us.

    One that really aggravates me is the month/day/year standard used in the USA as opposed to the day/month/year standard used by other nations. There is no shortage of stupid Americans conforming to the latter and not grasping that on any official document you fill out it must adhere to month/day/year.

    Don’t even get me started on the now MILLIONS of people using “a” before vowel sounding words when only the article “an” is correct. It’s now so rampant that I only expect language skills to worsen in the USA and the worst part is knowing when I was in 2nd grade this was 1 of 3 key principles you had to have correct or they would hold you back to repeat the 2nd grade!

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