I have always considered such words as "high-pitched", "four-legged", "oft-stated", "first-time", "self-esteem" (struggling to come up with more common examples) single words. For example, I would call "self-esteem" a hyphenated word. But a Merriam Webster editor refers to lily-livered as two hyphenated words. In the audio at 00:24, the editor says "it's spelled as two hyphenated words". Technically, are these compound words single words or not?

Edit: added the exact source.

  • It depends on who you ask. The question involves the relationship of orthography to language, and reasonable people can disagree on whether orthography is even relevant to the definition of word.
    – TimR
    May 16, 2018 at 18:30
  • The kind of hyphenation (four-legged but not self-esteem) you are asking about in English is very common, but they are not all in the dictionary. Bear in mind that usually they are only for a noun plus an adjective and you can invent your own: flight-tested attitude; tummy-tucked look, shrimp-based dish, jackpot-split bettors, etc, etc. This usage should not be confused with a word like self-esteem, which is hyphenated word like: self-control. A fun exercise is writing sentences with nouns and actions verbs and seeing if they work....
    – Lambie
    May 16, 2018 at 18:32
  • 1
    As modifiers, they are single words, morphological compounds consisting of two bases, not head + modifier.
    – BillJ
    May 16, 2018 at 19:41
  • @BillJ: can you define base for us as it is used there?
    – TimR
    May 16, 2018 at 22:18
  • 1
    They are morphological compounds, thus single words. The crucial point is that compounds are made up of two or more 'bases', whereas a noun phrase like "black bird" is a syntactic construction with "black" modifying "bird". In compound words, the first base does not modify the second, though it does typically refer to / describe it.
    – BillJ
    May 20, 2018 at 18:01

1 Answer 1


In general, unless a word is listed in a dictionary in a hyphenated form (in which case it's a hyphenated word), what you are looking at is just two words that have been hyphenated.

For instance, there is no single word as fifteen-legged:

It was a fifteen-legged centipede.
The centipede had fifteen legs.

In the first sentence, the two words are joined by a hyphen because they form a compound adjective.

Logically, if fifteen-legged were an actual word, then so too should be all of the other numerical combinations—but that's neither practical nor, ultimately, possible if expanded to every iteration. (Note, though, that two-legged, three-legged, and four-legged seem to have had enough popular usage that they've found their way into some dictionaries.)

However, high-pitched has become an actual word:

having a high pitch · a high-pitched voice

Although high-pitched is serving the same function as fifteen-legged, high-pitched is a hyphenated adjective, while the hyphen-combined words fifteen and legged form a compound adjective.

  • 2
    But the morphological compounds you talk of are single words. Not all compound words are lexicalised of course - many are not, especially the nonce-forms (often concocted on the hoof) such as found in "a custard-pie-in-your-face sketch" and "a no-fuzzy-edge guarantee", where "custard-pie-in-your-face” and "no-fuzzy-edge" are compound adjectives. We can tell they are single words for when we diagram clauses containing them, they are shown at word level as single words, i.e. single constituents, not five or three. Same applies to "fifteen-legged".
    – BillJ
    May 20, 2018 at 18:07

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