“Oh, such are the dreams of the everyday housewife  . . .” — Words and music by Chris Gantry, 1968

Recently I was watching a local newscast promoting an upcoming report about the problems of finding housing for a group of arriving immigrants. At the bottom of the screen was the caption, “No Where to Go.”

“That’s strange,” I thought, so I did some checking just to make sure that I hadn’t missed a memo from the language people. I hadn’t: “Nowhere” is indeed one word.

I also quickly realized just how easy it is, given our language’s constant state of flux, to make such a mistake when dealing with compound words. For example, while “nobody” is one word, “no one” consists of two. (Besides, no one should ever write “noone” because, well, it looks like it must be the British spelling of “noon.”)

As the good people at Merriam-Webster (m-w.com) remind us, there are three kinds of compound words: hyphenated (such as “e-book” and “e-tail”), closed (“online” and “webcam”) and open (“web site” and “web page”). And even some of these words are open to debate.

The meaning of “everyday” as used in the song lyrics above has long been: “used or seen daily; ordinary.” But now, as is the case with a lot of words, the spelling of the other meaning of  “every day” — “daily or every weekday” (for instance: She bakes cookies every day) — seems to be shifting toward becoming one word.

So pronounced has been the pressure for a closed spelling of that other definition of “every day” that the people who publish “Garner’s Modern American Usage” have moved the word’s potential to change to a closed spelling up to a level 2 on their 5-stage Language Change Index.

According to the folks at (m-w.com), “A good dictionary will list permanent compounds, so commonly used words become a permanent part of the language.”

“What is ‘correct,’” says proofreadingpal.com, “is what is most commonly done. The more people use a word, the less likely they are to hyphenate it.” And which words are currently being used more and more? That’s right, the ones that have to do with technology.

For example, at one time “You’ve got mail” used to refer to “Electronic Mail,” which contracted to “E-Mail,” before being further shortened into the noun “Email” (with some people saying that, when used as a verb, “email” is lowercase).

“Some people believe that the hyphen in ‘e-mail’ is antithetical to the free and speedy spirit of the in4mationage,” writes slate.com’s Tom Scocca. “Some people believe that the unhyphenated ‘email’ looks faddish and lazy. I find both sets of people irritating.”

And, not to be outdone, there’s the whole phone-related brouhaha. While most people seemed to agree pretty quickly that “smartphone” was one word, the same can’t be said for the cell-phone, which kept its hyphen intact for a long time before people finally relented and agreed with Merriam-Webster that the correct spelling is now “cellphone.” (Oh, and that thing sticking out of the wall that we used to use every day — not “everyday”— is a “landline,” one word.)

One website (web site?) says that compound nouns are usually one word, and gives the examples: “backup,” “breakup,” “checkout” and “payback.” But then along come non-nouns that are also one word, such as: “firsthand,” “aforementioned” and “commonsense.” Confused? You could always just go with which ever . . . er, whichever . . . word comes up in your spell check — I mean spellcheck.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: