Compounding difficulty

As our language has evolved, words that used to function independently of one another have merged and become inseparable. Familiar and recent examples include the evolution of “to day” and “to morrow” into the words “today” and “tomorrow.” This is happening all the time in nearly every language. But for now, in 2013’s English, there still exist some basic rules about when a compound verb or noun is one word and when the compound’s elements remain separated.

Most people in technology should be familiar with the the log in/login conundrum, which is complicated by the in to/into befuddlement. What’s up with these words? And why should I care?

Let’s start this adventure with the verb to lay off, understanding that it refers to a worker being “let go” from his or her place of employment:

Tuesday, Reginald was told he had been laid off. 

But we’ve seen enough reports in the news to recognize that this compound can function in two way—as a verb and as a noun:

Reginald heard Monday that this round of layoffs was going to be bad.

Turns out, Reggie was desperate:

Out of a job and without money to pay rent,  Reginald decided hold up a bank on his way home.

And it gets worse. A loudmouth—or you could say somebody with a loud mouth—in line behind Reggie at the bank, got impatient:

Hey, what’s the big holdup! 

So be happy that you were able to log in to your company’s system today. I’ve heard it happens that some people first discover their goners when their login creds stop working. Ouch.

Some compounds can also function as adjectives: Reginald’s getaway man stalled the car, and the pair was unable to get away from the crime scene. 

As you might have deduced, compounds of this type remain two words when used as verbs but become a single word when used as a noun. Adjectives often use hyphens — read this post for more on that — but, as in the case of getaway, have sometimes become one word. Timeout-taker and faceoff man are examples of a similar process. But note that while a coach calls time out, he is also taking a timeout.


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Posted in Communicate, Editorial Style, Grammar Diaries

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