10 tricky cases of one word or two confusion

Is it ‘altogether’ or ‘all together’? ‘Everyday’ or ‘every day’? Here’s an easy guide for those examples and others.


English is full of words and phrases that are identical except for a letter and/or a space. Examples include altogether/all together, over time/overtime, and over all/overall.

As professional writers and editors, our “writer’s instinct” will often tell us which form to use in a sentence. In some cases, the differences are subtle. I’ve caught myself questioning a few one-word phrases recently.

A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review offered the following guidelines:

• The one-word form is usually an adjective or adverb;
• The two-word form is usually a two-word phrase not modifying anything;
• When in doubt, say the expression out loud. For instance, “Are the desserts made everyday or every day? If you enunciate each word separately, it’s probably written as two words.”

The following are some less clear-cut word pairs.

Already/all ready

We don’t want to confuse them any more than we already have.
(In this case, already is used as an adverb.)

Are you all ready for the writing test?
(All ready is a phrase meaning thoroughly prepared.)

Altogether/all together

She is altogether the worse writer I have ever seen.
(Altogether is an adjective meaning entirely.)

We were all together for the CEO’s announcement.
(All together is a phrase meaning all there.)

Anyone/any one

Anyone can make that mistake.
(Anyone is a pronoun, meaning anybody.)

Any one of you might be next.
(Any one is a phrase. Any serves as an adjective and one serves as a noun.)

Anytime/any time

You are welcome to consult the style guide anytime.
(Anytime is an adjective and can be replaced with whenever.)

Do you have any time to edit this article?
(Any time is another two-word adjective-noun form.)

Backup/back up

There was a backup on the toll road this morning.
(The one word form means a stoppage or overflow.)

The police officer told the driver to back up.
(The two-word phrase means to go in reverse.)

Cutback/cut back

The salary cutbacks were disastrous for employee morale.
(Cutback is a noun meaning a decrease or reduction.)

I need to cut back on my consumption of chocolate.
(Cut back is the verb form.)

Handout/hand out

How many spelling errors did you find on that handout?
(Similar to cutback, handout is a noun.)

I hand out chocolate to my workshop attendees.
(Hand out is a verb.)

Maybe/may be

Maybe you should quit while you’re ahead.
(Maybe is an adverb meaning perhaps.)

It may be that the style guide was wrong.
(May be functions as a verb.)

Overtime/over time

Certain employees don’t get paid overtime.
(Overtime is a noun, meaning time beyond an established limit.)

Over time, we all learned to accept her use of the serial comma.
(The two-word phrase refers to the passage of time.)

Overall/over all

What was your overall impression?
(Overall is an adjective meaning general.)

The paper airplane flew over all our cubicles.
(Over all is a prepositional phrase. Over indicates a direction, and all is the object of that preposition.)

Ragan
readers, can you think any other confusing one- or two-word phrases?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. Read more of her work at www.impertinentremarks.com.

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