Grammarian Bleg

As noted before, while I’m often considered a competent writer (and I make up for my rule deficiencies with a sense of style and a vocabulary the size of a planet), I’m almost completely innocent of the actual formal rules about, e.g., punctuation. Blame some combination of skipping high school, the MS Word crutch, and reading habits of widely varying quality (and also reading too many texts translated from German, a language that seems to lend itself to the mad willy-nilly running of words together, both in original and in translation, witness dasein and lifeworld).

In this department, a question for the grammarians in the audience. Is there some, you know, actual rule, rather than a mere series of unrationalized instances, for when you hyphenate words, versus just run them together, versus just leave them as two words?

Policy maker vs policy-maker vs policymaker

Real world vs real-world vs (??) realworld

Underexplored vs under-explored vs (??) under explored

Etc. Some part of the rule has to do with whether a compound is being used as an adjective or noun, I know that much – e.g. “decision making” as noun vs “decision-making” as adjective, but this can’t be the whole rule, because there are three rather than two possible configurations (hyphenated, run together, or split), and not all the examples take both adjective and noun senses. There are also cases where one of the three is obviously wrong, but the other two, not so much. Sub-section vs subsection? Self-image (or understanding) vs self image?

Help a brother out.

(Also, I still do not really believe that “cannot” is one word, while “do not,” “is is not,” “will not, “may not,” etc. are all two. I comply with this arbitrary stricture only because a [beloved, despite this] former boss beat it into me with negative reinforcement. I demand linguistic reform!)

Also: shared posessives. Jack and Jill’s house? Jack’s and Jill’s house? ??


5 Responses to “Grammarian Bleg”

  1. Stephen R. Diamond Says:

    Of the three examples, only two involve combining words; in “underexplored,” “under” serves as a prefix rather than a word that can stand alone. “Under explored” is meaningless unless “Under” is someone’s name. I’d guess confusing words with prefixes from compound words causes your perplexity.

    A rule, not the simplest, governs prefixes: Run the prefix straight into the word unless the prefix is “all-,” “ex-,” or “self-.” The exception is to hyphenate when clarity requires. So, “co-op” not “coop” for cooperative.

    For true compound words, you can’t escape consulting the dictionary to resolve doubts, but some authority often supports each compounding method. Replacing hyphenated compound words with either a true one-word or two-word solution is the modern trend.

    “Jack’s and Jill’s” is the correct possessive form, but I would use a prepositional phrase, since the double-possessive’s euphony is so bad.

  2. Mike Says:

    Sounds like you have trouble with phrasal adjectives.

    It’s “real world,” when you mean: Get into the real world, man.

    It’s “real-world,” when you mean: My theory is a real-world approach to problem solving, yo.

    In the latter case, “real-world” is a phrasal adjective.

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thanks guys. Stephen, how does one distinguish between a prefix and a compound word? For example, why can’t we write “decisionmaking” and call “decision” a prefix, like “under?”

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    And some rogue words seem to go by different names even when they serve the same function! “Under” serves, I take it, as a prefix in “underwater” too, but then why do we not say “Jack is underconcrete” instead of “Jack is under concrete” when Jack has pissed off the mafia, or, even, “Jack is underJill?” “Underground” refers to the state of affairs where Jack is, well, under the ground, so why can we not substitute “concrete” when Jack is under the concrete?

  5. Stephen R. Diamond Says:

    A prefix can apply to any word in a grammatical class, whereas a compound word needs specific authorization by usage. “Decision inhaling,” for example, is meaningless, like combination of decision with most words. But even when the combination makes sense, you can’t go around freely making up new words by combining others. When frequent use stylizes a word combination, the two words eventually fuse, usually with meaning slightly different from the original words’ juxtaposition. An underwater plant isn’t exactly the same as a plant under water, rather, a plant normally growing under water. “Under-, the prefix in underinhale, is not the same word as the under forming the compound underwater. “Under-” means too little, not beneath.

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