Even proficient and confident writers fall prey to grammar mistakes, often without knowing they’ve done so. Whether it’s an old standard like tricky subject-verb agreement or something more obscure, grammar mistakes detract from the positive impression you’re trying to create with your content.
One of the challenges is that as language changes to reflect society, the rules often evolve. Compound words offer a perfect example. The historical pattern is for two words to appear separately when they are used together at first. Then as the phrase becomes more commonplace, they are often hyphenated and eventually become accepted as a single word with no hyphen. That process sometimes involves a period of time with no clear rule to follow, as any of the three options may be generally accepted as correct, yet questioned by some.
Some words, however, are more troublesome because they can be used in more than one way. One of the most common mistakes I observe these days involves words and phrases that can be used as either verbs or adjectives. These are usually short combinations that sometimes appear as two separate words, one compound word or even hyphenated. For example, you often see ‘log in’ as well as ‘login’ and ‘log-in.’ How can you tell which is correct?
For words and phrases like this, the key is to determine what function they are performing in a particular sentence. Do you want to log in, which is clearly a verb phrase, or find the login page, which is an adjective? As in the previous sentence, these words require two distinct approaches based on their function.
If you are conveying an action (verb) then the words must appear separately: Set up the buffet, lay out your clothing and then feel free to tag along with your sister as she goes to meet friends for a drink. Adjectives appear as one word, with or without a hyphen: Go to the login screen, check out the new setup process and complete the ad layout. When you’re done, you might want to be a tag-along little brother and join us at the bar.
All of these compound words are correct as one hyphenated or un-hyphenated adjective, whichever you prefer, but they are wrong if used as a single word when they act as a verb or verb phrase in the sentence. Got it?
There are exceptions to the rule – upload and babysit are single-word compound verbs, for example – but they are rare and usually apply only to a specific usage. Most of the time you still load up the station wagon and try not to sit on the baby.
Now before you point out that plenty of websites tell you to login to access the content you want, let me remind you that even the best web developers may not be as grammatically sophisticated as you have just become. If they were, they’d tell you to go to the login page and log in.
You’ll see lots of incidences of these words and phrases presented wrong in the wild, but that doesn’t mean you have to contribute to the problem. Just remember that when you’re dealing with this type of flexible phrase, adjectives are one word (with a hyphen if you like) but actions (verbs) should almost always appear as two separate words and you’ll be setting a good example for other law-abiding wordsmiths, both young and old.