One word or two? A look at verbal mindblowers

One of writing’s biggest roadblocks (or is it road blocks?) is determining whether words often found together are compound words or separate. Here are some cases you’ll find frequently.

Is Lexus an automaker or an auto maker?

For non-writers and editors, that seems like a silly question, but for anyone who sits down to write or to proofread an article about a company that makes cars, it’s a real head-scratcher. (Not headscratcher or head scratcher. Merriam-Webster says it’s hyphenated.)

Guides such as the Associated Press Stylebook sometimes give the answer—automaker is one word, just as automobile and autoworker are—but not always. For instance, there’s no entry for roadblock, which Webster’s lists as one word. And some words, including a few in the list of 10 below, are just too new for consensus.

The ‘up’ words

Signup, cleanup, setup, backup, warm-up; there are too many to list. But the rule for each of them is pretty much the same. If it’s a verb, it’s two words. So, if you’re writing for someone filling out an online form, ask them to “sign up for great deals.” If you’re writing an internal memo about the office kitchen, it’s, “Clean up the kitchen, you pigs.”

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