Grammar Guide #2: One Word or Two?

As technology advances, new terms are coined to describe what didn’t previously exist. Often these terms are made up of multiple words that eventually become compound words. For example, in the 1990s most people used a dial-up connection to access Web sites, for which they would describe their state as being on-line or off-line. Now very few people use dial-up connections to access websites, online shopping is everywhere and offline can also refer to side conversations, as in, “let’s take this offline.”

Did you notice how the once-hyphenated terms on-line and off-line transformed into compound words in that last sentence? And just last year, two of the most influential style manuals (Associated Press Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style) accepted website as the new standard over Web site. And while dial-up is still most widely accepted as a hyphenated adjective or noun, we may eventually see it as one word.

Knowing when to use one word or two, and when to hyphenate, can be tricky. To help out, I’ve culled some of the most commonly used—and misused—terms. For terms not listed here, I suggest you consult the previously listed sources as well as the extremely useful Yahoo! Style Guide.

backup (n., adj.), back up (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: Be sure to check that the backup is complete before installing new hardware. This software will automatically back up your personal files.

Helpful hint: If you can add “-ed” to the first word to make it past tense, as in backed up, then it should be formed as two words.

check-in (n., adj.), check in (v.)

When used as a noun or an adjective, it should be hyphenated. When used as a verb, it’s two words.

Examples: Please refer to page one for the proper check-in procedure. Please check in at the registration desk.

clickthrough (n., adj.), click through (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: You can increase your clickthrough rate buy having a strong call to action. Click through to the last page to view the results of the poll.

(Note: some style manuals still use a hyphen with the nouns and adjective versions of clickthrough. To do it this way is not necessarily wrong, it’s just old school.)

dial-up (n., adj.), dial up (v.)

Note hyphen when used as a noun or adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: More than 30% of US residents are still using a dial-up connection. What do those poor people do while they are waiting for their computer to dial up and connect?

flowchart (n., adj.), flow chart (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb (although usage as a verb is rare).

Examples: This flowchart shows how we will deliver a more streamlined process. The Insert tool makes it easy to flow charts into the design.

kickoff (n., adj.), kick off (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: The kickoff meeting is schedule for next Tuesday. Organizers will kick off the campaign Monday.

login (n., adj.), log in (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: You will need a login name to access the site. You will not be able to see your account information unless you log in.

(Note: logon/log on, sign-in/sign in and sign-out/sign out all use similar conventions.)

logoff (n., adj.), log off (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: To exit the program, click the logoff button. It is a good idea to log off before leaving your computer unattended.

mashup (n., adj.), mash up (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: The software is a mashup of music and mapping technology. The software lets you mash up your Facebook profile.

opt-in (n., adj.), opt in (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: The number of opt-in readers for our newsletter is even higher than we expected. If you want overdraft protection, you must opt in.

printout (n., adj.), print out (v.)

One word when used as a noun or an adjective. Two words when used as a verb.

Examples: He made his comments on the printout. She was going to print out a copy but the printer was out of ink.

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