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Water-repellent aka looking for permanent compounds in dictionaries.

As far as I understand, the 'general guidelines' for many types of compound modifiers is normally to hyphenate before a noun (especially if ambiguity may otherwise result) and not after a noun, though Hart's makes some exceptions for some types of compounds (e.g. good-looking). Not suggesting that is the only type of compounds for which exceptions exist btw, and cannot now remember if Hart's has other 'exceptions'.

But hyphenation is also often described as a 'look-it-up-in-a-good-dictionary' issue. That is, as far as I understand, the dictionary might recommend a compound always and everywhere be open, closed, or hyphenated. Perhaps I have misunderstood this.

Anyway, if I have not misunderstood, I am experiencing some difficulty in looking them up in the dictionary. One difficulty regards what is considered an adjective. Would a compound modifier in the predicate position always be considered an adjective? If so, the second is, if there are no examples placing the compound in this position, how does one determine if it is always supposed to be hyphenated, departing from the 'general guidelines'. One would perhaps think that if the noun version is down as hyphenated, the dictionary recommends hyphenation also for the adjective (and especially if the adjective appears to be rather firmly listed as hyphenated), but difficulties here present themselves, as I will describe below.

Water-repellent/water-repellant is one example. From the fact that the noun is listed as hyphenated in Oxford Dictionary (Premium version), one could perhaps conclude that the Oxford Dictionary recommends permanent hyphenation in all positions also of the adjective form (which is similarly down as hyphenated).

In the adjective section, it is consistently down as hyphenated in the examples, even when used as a predicate. There are no examples for it under the noun entry, and pressing the option 'water-repellent' there takes you to the adjective.

However, turn to the page for repellent/repellant, and it is presented in a somewhat different manner. Granted, I cannot find an example of the 'adjective form' (or in the modifying role) after a noun at all, but the noun appears as an open compound in one sentence (though in the form 'silicone water repellent). Furthermore, 'water repellence' and 'water repellency' appear in the examples further down for these words, in spite of the fact that it is listed only as 'water-repellence' and 'water-repellency (-repellancy)' in the main entries for these words, which entries contain no examples.

So, it seems that the main entries support the idea of hyphenation regardless of position in the sentence as even the noun form is presented as hyphenated, but when looking under 'repellent', the examples used follows a pattern seemingly at odds with that.

So how is a girl to know when the dictionary suggests a departure from the general guidelines (which I hope I understand correctly, though it is, I believe, more complicated when delving into various types of compounds).

(It is perhaps simple enough if what it suggests is a permanently closed compound; I don't really know.)


  • edited April 2018

    I know that hyphenation is not a matter of very hard-and-fast rules, but I guess I just want to figure out how to tell if the dictionary recommends something that does not follow the general guidelines on hyphenation for a particular word. As it seems one is advised to do so. But I'm confused about how to know when it is. :-(

  • edited April 2018

    It is, in fact, the same for 'water-resistant'. Here, the noun 'water-resistance' is also down as hyphenated. Both noun and adjective have examples to back up the idea of permanent hyphenation under the main entries for the compounds.

    But the entry for 'resistant' has an example of 'water-resistant' before the noun and an example of 'water resistant' after the noun. In other words, the compounds appear there following what appears to be the 'general guiding principles' if one may call them that.

  • It's worth turning to the OED, not just because it's so big but also because it reproduces its quotations without any editing for spelling/punctuation.

    For the noun spelled -ant

    1815   Times 3 Mar. 4/2 (advt.)    The Advertiser begs to offer to the Public a certain remedy [for wet feet], by the use of the water repellant, which, with two applications, will render the soles and upper leathers of boots and shoes completely water-proof and elastic.
    1911   M. H. Lewis Pop. Hand Bk. for Cement & Concrete Users xxx. 367   Cement grout, with or without the addition of water repellants.
    1992   Canad. Gardening June 50/1 (advt.)    Wolmanized wood that resists rot and termite attack plus it contains a water repellant that's ‘built-in’.
    2002   M. J. Crosbie Home Rehab Handbk. ii. 138   Stains typically contain fungicides, water repellants, UV blockers, and other additives.

    For the noun spelled -ent

    1840   Bury & Norwich Post 19 Feb. (advt.)    Clutten's Macintosh lustre; or, india-rubber water repellent.
    1883   C. E. Calen Let. 2 Apr. in Ann. Rep. Operations U.S. Life-saving Service (1885) 447   It is made of granulated cork prepared and coated with a ‘water repellent’.
    1952   R. A. Pingree in H. C. Speel Textile Chemicals & Auxiliaries xx. 408   An acetate rayon fabric may tolerate a water repellent which is unacceptable to either viscose rayon or cotton.
    2003   Chicago Tribune (Midwest ed.) 13 July iv. 9/1   For an exterior wall..the blocks must have an integral water repellent in the block and mortar.

    For the adjective spelled -ant

    1825   Aurora & Franklin Gaz. 22 Sept. (advt.)    Black and drab milled saxony cassimeres and drab water repellant kerseys.
    1938   Times 21 Feb. 11/1   A water-repellant finish is demonstrated at the stand of the Bleachers' Association.
    1997   M&S Mag. Spring 56/2   These pure wool windowpane check trousers have a Teflon finish to make them stain resistant and water repellant. Pleats and turn-ups are pure Fred Astaire style.

    For the adjective spelled -ent

    1842   Satirist 13 Feb. 49/2   Notwithstanding its water-repellent properties, it remains as porous as formerly.
    1922   Encycl. Brit. XXX. 59/1   The surface of the dope should be water-repellent.
    1974   P. De Vries Glory of Hummingbird (1975) xv. 231   Testing a line of water-repellent trenchcoats.
    2003   Wanderlust Apr. 105/1   A sudden heavy downpour left me dry in the middle but wet at both ends as, despite being efficiently water repellent, the jacket had no hood.

    It seems clear that nobody spells the noun as a hyphenated word. For the adjective, there's a tendency to hyphenate, but no unanimity.

  • edited April 2018

    Thanks, David Crosbie. That's helpful.

    One needs a separate subscription for the OED, right?

    I doubt my local library in Norway is a subscriber, though I guess I might give it a try.

  • Not if you're lucky, norwegianblue. I log on using my membership number of my local public library, since many libraries in the UK subscribe. You name suggests that you may be in Norway, but it's not impossible that you can access the OED though a library there.

  • edited April 2018

    I have found out that a library in Oslo apparently subscribes, but I don't think I can get hold of a library card from there before I am in the east of the country next. Yes, I do indeed live in Norway. I guess it is possible that I can register my ordinary public library card with them (as far as I can tell, they allow the use of other library cards for some purposes at least), and get access like that. I will find out on Monday. They were closed today by the time I realised I should contact them.

    The individual subscriptions to the OED are a little steep, but it might possibly be worth it in case I cannot get free access for a while -- and would be at least a matter of months, I think, if I need physically to show up at the library in question first. I'm not sure how useful the OED is in comparison with, say, the Premium version of the Oxford Living Dictionary here, and whether it is worth it.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited April 2018

    Hi @norwegianblue

    If you can't get access through a library card, and still want to consider a subscription, maybe you will find this useful:

    You can find some detail on our different products on this link:

    Premium offers access to 9 languages - however, if you want to just compare the English dictionaries:

    Covers current English including more than 350,000 words and phrases, and more than 1.9 million example sentences.

    Includes 600,000 words, 3.5 million quotations, and covers 1000 years of English. The OED is a historical dictionary.

    As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from Dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language, traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.

    There is currently a £90 offer on the OED subscription, you just need to use the code OED90 before adding to the basket. This offer is only on an annual subscription.

    I hope you find this useful, @norwegianblue!
    And of course, we are always happy to help with any English-related questions here on the forum. :)

  • edited April 2018

    Thank you, Simone.

    For my present purposes, I do think avoiding over-hyphenation would be as important as avoiding under-hyphenation. These compounds will appear with a great frequency and littering the page with hyphens would not seem wise in terms of style and look.

    So, I wonder if I should simply follow the general guidelines for the different types of compounds and the different positions in which they appear in the sentence structure. Unless it appears in the dictionary as a closed compound, or it appears VERY clear that it must always be hyphenated or open. Or, of course, one must depart from this to avoid an ambiguity.

    It will hardly be wrong to go by the following, would it?

    A water-repellent material is a material which is water repellent. It has water repellency.
    A cut-resistant material is a material which is cut resistant. It has cut resistance.

    But a waterproof material is a material which is waterproof.
    A flameproof material is a material which is flameproof.

  • SimoneSimone admin
    edited April 2018

    Hi again @norwegianblue :)
    @DavidCrosbie did cover the topic comprehensively with what is on the OED (thanks, @DavidCrosbie!), but if I may complement his post, you might also find these links useful:

    From our Oxford Dictionaries grammar help:
    Hyphen (-)

    And a few posts from the Oxford Dictionaries blog:

    Hyphens in the headlines

    6 punctuation marks you might be using incorrectly (5th sub-section)

    An OED editor answers your questions (9th question)

    Cupboards and bro hugs: investigating compound words

    Now, about the examples you mentioned above:

    A water-repellent material is a material which is water repellent. It has water repellency.
    A cut-resistant material is a material which is cut resistant. It has cut resistance.

    But a waterproof material is a material which is waterproof.
    A flameproof material is a material which is flameproof.

    ...they all seem very correct to me! :)

  • Thank you to both of you for your help. :-)

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