Compound words can be confusing. Some mean one thing when they’re closed (“everyday”) and something else when they’re open (“every day”). Some need a hyphen sometimes but not others. How are you supposed to know the difference?

Here are a few tips, tools, and guidelines to help.

1. Set MS Word to check for compound-word usage.

      Step 1: Click on the FILE tab and then click OPTIONS:
      Step 1

      Step 2: Click PROOFING and then SETTINGS…:
      Step 2

      Step 3: Make sure that WRITING STYLE is set to “Grammar & Style.” Then Scroll down under STYLE and make sure “Hyphenated and compound words” is checked, then click OK all the way out of Options:
      Step 3

      Step 4: As you’re writing (you can right click wherever you see a colored squiggly line) or when you run spell check, Word will alert you to compounds it thinks should be hyphenated or closed. If you aren’t sure, check before making the change.
      Step 4
      Step 5

2. Err on the side of closed compounds—if it isn’t right, spell check should pick it up.

  • Please be aware that the grammar checker is not always correct. Do not depend solely on the machine to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. Here’s a great grammar guide that can help you make heads or tails of what Word suggests.
  • Keep in mind that some words are correct both open and closed, but they mean different things:
      everyday is different from every day (it’s an everyday occurrence that happens every day)
      anymore is different from any more (I don’t want any more homework. I don’t do homework anymore.)
      Make sure you’re choosing the one with the correct meaning.

3. A compound adjective that comes before the noun it describes gets a hyphen. (The word well appears in many of these types of compound modifiers.)

  • I’m jealous of my neighbor’s well-kept yard. My neighbor’s yard is well kept.
  • He has a very well-organized garage. He keeps his garage very well organized.
  • It’s an age-old story.
  • Able-bodied people should park further away from the building.

Modifiers using an adverb (a word ending in -ly) don’t get a hyphen:

  • Our yard is filled with quickly growing weeds.
  • The sharply dressed man is our division chief.

4. Some terms are always hyphenated. Some that used to be aren’t anymore.

  • The black-and-white photo; the photo was processed in black-and-white.
  • My great-grandmother died six months before she would have turned 100 years old. My 91-year-old grandmother is still as spry as if she were sixty years old. (Rule of thumb—if it has an s on the end of it—years, months—it doesn’t get hyphenated. If no s, it needs to be hyphenated.)
  • My stepmother and father married three years ago. I have two stepbrothers and one stepnephew now.
  • E-mail or email is correct.
  • etc. (there are far too many instances to list all of them)
  • If in doubt, look it up on