A Word, Please: Looking at ‘one word, two words or hyphenated’ issue


Health care, healthcare or health-care? Make up, makeup or make-up? Water ski, water-ski or waterski? Cell phone, cellphone or cell-phone?

A lot of questions posed in this column elicit the answer: There’s no right answer. Different dictionaries, different publications and different industries do things different ways. So you get to choose.

MORE: Read past columns on all things grammar from June Casagrande >>

The serial comma is the classic example. News media prefer just one comma in “red, white and blue,” book and magazine publishing usually prefers two: “red, white, and blue.” Both are correct in their respective editing styles.

But when it comes to the “one word, two words or hyphenated” conundrum, it’s possible to mess up. Very possible.

Here’s an example: “Engineers and programmers makeup the bulk of the association’s membership.”

Fascinatingly, very few native English speakers would make that mistake. People who’ve never spent a second pondering this stuff seem to know instinctively that “make up” works better in that sentence. The user might explain his choice like this: “You’re not talking about something’s makeup. You’re talking about making something up.”

Poorly articulated as such an explanation would be, it’s right. To make something up is to use the verb form. To talk about a person’s personality makeup or her application of lipstick and mascara is to use the noun form.

These are called phrasal verbs, by the way — verbs of more than one word, usually a plain verb plus a preposition, in which the added word significantly changes the meaning. (That is, the “up” in “make up” means something different from plain-old “make,” just as the “by” in “get by” makes it different from “get.”)

To know whether your term is “open” (two words), “closed” (one word) or hyphenated, there’s a simple two-step process. Step 1: Identify its part of speech — noun, verb, adjective. Step 2: Check a dictionary, noting the part-of-speech designations and keeping in mind that dictionaries sometimes disagree with each other.

Verbs are usually open: “tune up.” Nouns are often closed, “tuneup,” or hyphenated, “self-esteem.” Some adjectives are in the dictionary, like “good-looking,” but most compound adjectives aren’t. Luckily, they’re easy to manage.

Let’s start with “healthcare.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary, one of the two most influential dictionaries in publishing, lists the noun as one word. So if you’re talking about getting healthcare, that’s the one-word noun. Webster’s has no entry for an adjective, so what should you do if you want to mention, say, “healthcare services” or “healthcare policy”?

Well, in English, we use nouns as adjectives. They’re called attributive nouns and good examples include “paint store” and “road work.” Just slap the noun in front of another noun and it’s understood you mean the first one is now working adjectivally.

Dictionaries don’t always agree. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, the other most influential dictionary in publishing, prefers to treat “health care” as two words. That’s the noun form.

To make it or any two-word form an adjective, apply the basic rule of hyphenation: whenever a compound modifier — that is, a two-word adjective — comes before a noun, hyphenate it if you believe the hyphen makes it clearer: “She has good health-care insurance.”

By the way, even Webster’s New World acknowledges that the noun “health care” can be written as two words, though that dictionary’s clear preference is one word.

As for the others I’ve mentioned: Both Merriam’s and Webster’s New World prefer the noun “makeup” as one word, no hyphen, though they agree that the verb is “make up.”

They agree that the piece of sports equipment known as a “water ski” is an open compound, even though the verb and its derivatives are hyphenated: “That water-skier sure knows how to water-ski on his water skis.”

The dictionaries also agree that “cell phone” is a two-word noun, so you’re free to hyphenate it if you’re using it as an adjective, “cell-phone manufacturer,” or not, “cell phone manufacturer.”


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at