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 www.merriam-webster.com 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 dictionary.com.