Ask Language Log: "build out", "build-out", or "buildout"?

« previous post | next post »

MDS wrote:

I have been frustrated in trying to figure out how to use verbal phrases consisting of a verb plus a preposition/adverb in an adjectival or noun context.  I'm sure I didn't use the right linguistic phraseology there, so let me tell you what I mean.  I'm speaking of verbal phrases such as "build out," "work out," "build up," "put in," "sell off," "sell out," etc., where the auxiliary word isn't really working as either an preposition or an adverb.  It's simply part of a verbal phrase.  When used as a verb, other words may either be placed in between the words of the verbal phrase or after it.   E.g., "sell it off" vs. "sell off your stock."  I would be interested to hear what the appropriate part of speech is for the auxiliary word in these verbal phrases.

That much is easy: out, up, in, off, etc. are all prepositions, and in the cited combinations with verbs, they are simply intransitive prepositions. But MDS continues:

However, that's not my main issue.

My question pertains to how these verbal phrases should appear when used in the position of a noun.  Obviously, one doesn't continue the use of the two words separated by a space in such uses.  But what should guide our decision whether to use a hyphen or to jam the words together?  There isn't a single rule, obviously.  One talks of going to work out at a "workout," not a "work-out."  One looks to build up holdings in a "buildup."  But, one puts a canoe in the water at a "put-in," not a "putin."

My particular frustration is with respect to building out broadband networks, as described in filings with the FCC.  Should one (excuse the jargon) refer to "buildout obligations" as part of a "nationwide buildout of infrastructure," or as "build-out obligations" as part of a "nationwide build-out of infrastructure," or some combination of those?  Obviously, one would not use "build out" in the adjectival or substantive versions, but are there reasons for hyphenating vs. combining the two words when using them as either a noun or adjectival phrase?

Inquiring minds want to know.

First, one more bit of syntactic terminology. English allows nouns to be used freely as modifiers of other nouns, in compound nouns and other complex-nominal constructions, and such nouns or noun phrases don't thereby become adjectives — they're still just nouns. This morning's news mentions "air support", "ground operations", "administration officials", "national security team", "terrorist sanctuary".  The phrase "buildout obligations" is a compound noun analogous to "treaty obligations" or "income-tax obligations", and buildout (in whatever spelling) remains a noun, just as treaty and income tax do.

The spelling of such compound nouns — at least the question of space vs. hyphen vs. nothing — is one of the last unconquered bastions of English orthographic liberty. Particular publications may attempt to impose particular patterns for the spelling of particular compounds in particular contexts, but freedom stubbornly persists, even in the works of individual writers. Thus over the past year, Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth feature at the New York Times has used all three possible spellings for the noun [build+out]:

[link] When you combine the kind of work Levin and others are doing with this global build out of connections (which is going into fast forward as smart phone prices drop), it’s hard not to be a rational optimist, as defined in Matt Ridley’s illuminating recent book.

[link] A central point in the chorus of warnings from Bilham and other earthquake researchers is that the developing world (particularly the industrializing giants India and China) is more than replicating a similar build-out of cities in seismic danger zones.

[link] As I’ve been asserting lately, with the buildout of the “Knowosphere,” we may be poised to surmount that barrier.

I note this not to censure Mr. Revkin, but to praise him. We've lost the freedom to write "build" or "builde" or  "buyld" or "buylde" or "bylde" or "bilde" — let's not rush to abandon the few feeble little orthographic liberties we have left.

That said, there are two factors that obviously play a role in our compound-spelling choices. First, more familiar combinations tend to be hyphenated or written solid — and as a compound becomes lexicalized, it is more closely combined more often. And second, there's a tendency for nominal structures of the form [[X Y] Z] to be written X-Y Z, in order to make the structure clearer to readers.

Some similar issues in German were an important part of the ill-fated Rechtschreibreform of 1996, which was mentioned in a few LLOG posts back in 2004:

"State-Ordered Dyslexia", 8/6/2004
"More on spelling unreform", 8/7/2004
"Many new rules a little meaningfully", 8/7/2004
"Superfluity and uselessness", 8/8/2004
"Update on the Germanspellingreformoppositionmovement", 8/21/2004

And compound-spelling issues in Dutch inflamed public passions at about the same time: "Spell simply and carry a big stick", 12/21/2005.


  1. Ellen K. said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    If no hyphen makes the work look like the name of a Russian politician, use a hyphen. (putin) :)

  2. Ellen K. said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    work = word.

  3. Giles said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    I tend to use a space when it's a verb, and none when it's a noun. For example, "Please log in to the website" vs "We had over 1,000 logins on our website today". Or "let's build out connections globally" vs "this global buildout of connections".

    Not sure if I'm following an established rule or just making it up, but it "feels right" to me FWLIW.

    [(myl) See "Loginned", 6/18/2010.]

  4. ThomasH said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    I can see differences according to meaning: the best "work-out" of a problem in finance or calculus but a "workout" at the gym.

  5. andreazh said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    I'd say both buildout and build-out are fine as long as one and the same form is used consistently in one and the same text…

    [(myl) This is the "hobgoblin of little minds" rule?]

  6. John Lawler said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    As with apostrophe's and commas, put'em where you hear'em.

  7. The Ridger said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

    Hyphen or joined, it's all one – but making them separate words can cause confusion. In "When you combine the kind of work Levin and others are doing with this global build out of connections", without knowing we were talking about "buildouts", I would have read that as "building [something] out of connections" – that is, connections were the raw material for the building.

  8. John Walden said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    There are some aesthetic considerations. It's a personal thing, but I can't see

    "I loved it from the gooff"


    "The winddown in the economy"


  9. Xmun said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    @John Lawler: You must be joking. How on earth can you hear an apostrophe? (The punctuation mark of that name, I mean.)

  10. Xmun said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

    And just for the record I wrote that last comment at 7.50 a.m. local time on Sunday.

  11. Ø said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    @Xmun: If you can hear a comma, then you can hear an inverted comma. (You might have to stand on you're head.)

  12. Ellen K. said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

    The fact that an apostrophe can be called an inverted comma does NOT mean that, like a comma, it marks something audible in speech.

  13. Anna Ronkainen said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

    In the startup world, the non-use of a hyphen in “startup”/“start-up” is for some reason a major shibboleth for cluefulness.

  14. OrenWithAnE said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    @John Walden, but would you scoff at "from the getgo" or "slowdown in the economy?"


  15. Vireya said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

    I've never heard or read "build-out" in any context before. Seeing it for the first time, I need it to be joined or hyphenated so that I can know it is a jargon term for something. If I had come across "this global build out of connections" by itself, I would have been puzzling over the typo, wondering what they had meant to say.

  16. mollymooly said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    I write "co-operate" because "cooperate" looks bad to me, but "uncooperative" because "unco-operative" looks worse. This arguable inconsistency does not trouble me.

  17. John Lawler said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    @Xmun, Ellen – Of course. Personally, I hear hyphens occasionally, commas always, and apostrophe's never. Your signage may vary.

  18. Lazar said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

    mollymooly: I've always felt conflicted over "no[?]one". "Noone" looks like ye olde spelling of "noon", but the strong analogy of "anyone, everyone, someone" seems to preclude separating the two entirely, but "no-one" looks affected (and noöne even more so). There's just no right way to write it.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

    Then, John Lawler, why did you write, "As with apostrophe's and commas, put'em where you hear'em."?

    What you say now doesn't fit with that. At least not that I can see.

  20. Rebecca said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 6:24 pm

    I "hear" the apostrophe in "oh no you di'int".

  21. MikeM said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

    C'mon, you can hear all punctuation, according to Victor Borge:

  22. GeorgeW said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    Isn't there some kind of normal development over time: spaced > hyphenated > joined?

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

    In ThomasH's the best "work-out" of a problem in finance or calculus but a "workout" at the gym I hear a stress difference (in my head). Anyone else get that.

  24. Rod Johnson said,

    January 26, 2013 @ 10:55 pm

    Er, that was supposed to be a question.

  25. John Walden said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 3:15 am

    @ OrenWithAnE. Ignoring your tone, which I hope wasn't intended to come across as insulting as it did, that is rather the point I was making. I don't "scoff" at anything but think that "gooff" or "winddown" don't work, whereas I do think that your examples are ok.

    Perhaps you could explain your point better, without the use of capital letters, exclamation marks and words like "fraud"?

  26. maidhc said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 3:47 am

    If you are giving advice to Indians, do not tell them to put commas where you hear them. One of the characteristics of Indian English speech is putting a pause after unimportant words like "a" and "the". I don't know why, but perhaps it comes from Hindi. I have seen commas appearing in such places in writing too, so it is better to show the functions for which a comma is used.

    With respect to the original question, I've decided that it's better to use a hyphen, because I've seen too many cases where people split the word incorrectly. But if it's a common usage I suppose it's fine.

  27. Farrar Richardson said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 4:59 am

    My great grandfather, who rarely wrote a grammatical error, always used "he don't" in informal correspondence. When his father called him on it, he did not defend the practice, but replied in a letter with many repetitions of "he do'n't" in very clear handwriting. From what I have seen, the use of "he don't" was much more common in 19th century America. Apparently people could hear both apostrophes.

  28. andreazh said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    @myl well, when faced with hobgoblins, foolishly consistent little minds need to be pragmatic ;)

  29. Giles said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 9:36 am

    @myl thanks for the link! Somewhat fewer thanks for introducing me to the word "loginning"…

  30. Faldone said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    If you don't hear the apostrophe in would've you'll never understand why people will write would of.

  31. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    Is “Knowosphere” a misspelling of noösphere or a deliberate respelling?

  32. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    I'll grant that sometimes an apostrophe corresponds to something audible. But other times, many times, it's just a spelling convention that does not correspond to anything audible.

    Example: Jesus' (one version of the possessive of Jesus; and I mean Jesus Christ here, so voices sound at the end).

    It sounds exactly the same as "Jesus". It's a spelling convention to mark the possessive even if it's not marked in speech.

    And compare Jesus' versus Jesus's. The two spellings represent two different pronunciations. But note that both have the apostrophe.

    As for "do'n't", I'll buy the the first apostrophe might represent something audible. The second does not. It's simply a spelling convention. It's simply and nt, same as in "pant". Pant and "can't" rhyme. You can't here the apostrophe because it doesn't represent a sound.

  33. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    Faldone, I don't hear the apostrophe in would've and yet I understand just fine why people write would of. It's because it sounds like would of. Recognition of that doesn't change that writing the second part of would've as 've is a spelling convention. I don't hear the apostrophe any more than I hear the e in would've (Or I've or have for that matter.)

  34. Eric P Smith said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    @Ellen K: Pant and can't only rhyme if you have the Sam–psalm merger.

  35. John Lawler said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    @Eric: FYI, for me (Midw Am, 1940s), pant and can't are a perfect rhyme, and have the same vowel as Sam and man, whereas psalm rhymes with palm, Tom and bomb.
    @Ellen: Why should one care where apostrophes are placed? Or unplaced? They're irrelevant since they're not part of speech; this is like arguing about typefaces and margins.

  36. Ray Dillinger said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 11:08 am

    To me the question of these compounds is about how far the regularization process has gone.

    For example, consider "log in." In 1990**1, no regularization had occurred; it was consistently written as separate words, always in the sense of a verb, and couldn't be easily or naturally conjugated. By 1993, the verb had been regularized enough that it didn't seem strange to conjugate it, but the intransitive preposition was still appended separately from the conjugation. So you could say that someone had "logged in" or that someone was "logging in". And I think that sort of had to happen before the hyphenated spelling started to make sense. IIRC, the hyphenated spelling "log-in" in the sense of a verb started to get popular around 1995.

    At about the same time that the verb became regular enough to be easily conjugated, a fairly regular noun sense, spelled with or without the hyphen but never as separate words, had become popular, and you could talk about someone's "login" as opposed to their "session" and their "account" and their "username." **2

    Fast forward to now, and we're starting to see small communities of people who have fully regularized the verb, and can talk about someone "loginning" or someone who has "loginned." This level of regularization simply cannot happen, IMO, with a word that you still spell using a hyphen in the middle, because when you separate the intransitive proposition, you still have to conjugate separately from it.


    **1: None of these dates are based on research backed up by corpus searches; I'm just reporting personal experience of the construction by year.

    **2: This is peripheral to the main point I'm making above, but it was at that time very handy to have a noun which meant several of those things at once; the multiplicity allowed more meanings to be expressed, without the use of repetitive sentences built on very precise technical terms that only meant one thing each. So you could speak about "banning someone's login" when you meant all three at once; kill-9 their shell session if they're logged in right now, lock their username so they can't log in again, and delete their account to terminate any business or institutional ties with them.

    By now the words that used to be very precise technical terms, like most words that used to be very precise technical terms, are less precise and cover more of these senses, which makes "login" as a noun less necessary, but still good to have in contexts where you're using any or all of the other words with the older, more precise meanings.

  37. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    I still don't know the past tense of "blow dry." Is it blew dry or blow dried? If you say, "I blew my hair dry," then I'm on board. And "I blew dry my hair" sounds all right to. But why not, "I blow-dried my hair"?

  38. Ø said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    I say "I blow-dried my hair". When I think about why I say that (other than that I've heard others say it), I tell myself that "blow-dry" is a verb. Blow-drying is semantically a kind of drying.

    Some people say "blew my hair dry" instead. Of course, that's grammatical. It was already grammatical before the invention of the blow-dryer (which brought with it the invention of the noun "blow-dryer" and the verb "blow-dry").

    I think that "blow-dry my hair" can sound wrong to people because it sounds like a messing up of "blow my hair dry", which it's not. This red herring depends on the fact that "blow" on its own is a verb, and also on the fact that "dry" can be an adjective as well as a verb.

  39. Eric P Smith said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 11:42 am

    John Lawler: Thankyou, yes, as soon as I had commented I realised that the Sam-psalm merger is not the deciding factor in American English.

    Here in the UK, received pronunciation is 'pant' /pant/, 'can't' /kɑnt/; and those who rhyme 'pant' and 'can't' are those with the Sam-psalm merger.

    Can you think of any way to characterise those who rhyme 'pant' and 'can't' in terms that work on both sides of the Atlantic? Perhaps those who have the Sam-psalm merger but not the father-bother merger? My ear for American accents is not good enough for me to be sure.

  40. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    Eric P Smith, sam and psalm do not have the same vowel for me, but pant and can't do rhyme for me.

    Though, I do have to agree with you. Can't does have pronunciations that don't rhyme with pant. But that doesn't change my point about -nt versus -n't, that there's no pronunciation difference associated with the spelling difference.

    John Lawler. I'm certainly not making any arguments about where apostrophes are placed. I'm simply continuing the conversation that started with a comment YOU made which claimed apostrophes can be pronounced. (Note I'm not saying you claimed that; none the less, you posted a comment claiming that. Which you haven't bothered to clarify.)

  41. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    And, now that I've read the rest of the comments and not just the replies to me.

    Eric P. Smith, I have the father-bother merger. And John Lawler had already indicated, as I have now as well, that he doesn't have the sam-psalm merger but pronounces can't and pant as rhyming.

    I also can't see what father-bother would have to do with can't-pant. Each pair of words rhyme for me, and the two pairs have completely separate vowels. can't and pant have the TRAP vowel. Usually depicted in IPA as æ.

    Not that any of this is relevant to the initial topic. Nor the issue of the pronounceability of apostrophes.

  42. Chance said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    I am honestly confused as to whether John Lawler was joking when he wrote "apostophe's" with an apostrophe. If so, what was the humor?

    Ø said, "(You might have to stand on you're head.)"

    Was writing "you're" for "your" part of the joke? I am sincerely baffled by this. I know the commenters here are an exceptionally literate bunch. I also know everyone makes careless errors. Is this a case of over-thinking? (Or over thinking, or overthinking)?

  43. John Lawler said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    @Chance: Underthinking, if anythink.

  44. Xmun said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    @Ellen K: "The fact that an apostrophe can be called an inverted comma . . ."

    But an apostrophe isn't an inverted comma. It's simply a raised comma. Inverted commas are opening quotation marks (single or double).

    By the way, I once knew someone who distinguished the pronunciation of the punctuation mark (apostrof, 3 syllables) from the rhetorical term (apostrophe, 4 syllables). He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe and I assumed he was following the practice of his native language.

  45. Ø said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    @Chance: If you are thinking my joke at all, you are over-thinking it.

    The apostrophe in my "you're" was the least funny part of it, and that's saying something.

    I took the apostrophe in John Lawler's "apostrophe's" as a joke, and although I wasn't sure I got the joke I decided to imitate it. Isn't that pathetic?

  46. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    Xmun, I wasn't the one who used the "inverted comma" term, I was simply replying to someone else.

  47. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    If people are attempting humor, no wonder this conversation is confusing. No way to tell what someone actually means versus an attempt at humor.

  48. Nathan Myers said,

    January 27, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    Ellen K: When someone says something absurd, assume they are joking. It makes for less awkwardness, in the end, if you are wrong. You are more likely to be wrong than you like to believe.

    It appears that "backup" does not follow any of the rules suggested above, in techpubs. I am torn whether to consider techpubs as usage.

  49. Chad Nilep said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 1:34 am

    "That much is easy… they are simply intransitive prepositions."

    Would 'twere so in matters terminological. Various linguists or applied linguists also call such prepositions "particles" (a truly polysemous term), "grammatical particles", or even "adverbs", though that last is obviously controversial.

  50. Circe said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 2:36 am


    One of the characteristics of Indian English speech is putting a pause after unimportant words like "a" and "the". I don't know why, but perhaps it comes from Hindi.

    I am a native speaker of Hindi, and also a "native" speaker of Indian English. Two points:

    a) I have never noticed any tendency to insert pauses after "a" and "the" among other Indian English speakers.

    b) To whatever extent this tendency might be common, it certainly does not come from Hindi. Hindi has no definite article ("the") and there is no requirement to insert a pause after the indefinite article equivalent ("एक", lit. one). Further, only about 40% percent (perhaps less) of Indians are native Hindi speakers. Most of the other Indian languages that I am familiar with also lack the definite article and don't require a pause after the indefinite article.

  51. maidhc said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 7:11 am

    I interact with a lot of Indian English speakers, and I would estimate that about 30% have this tendency. I don't have any easy way to tell their native language, but I think the majority are from the northern part of the country. The other person I work with most often has lived in India and speaks fluent Hindi, and she has also remarked on this phenomenon.

    As I said, I really don't know the cause of it. It could be that because their native language has no definite article, they put in a pause when they encounter one in English. English is remarkably fussy about articles. However, it is not just articles, the pause frequently occurs after prepositions as well.

    I see this mostly in the context of speaking to an audience, and I suspect many of them try to memorize what they are going to say. So it's perhaps not so much in the context of everyday speech.

    However I do see that, a small number of them do the, same thing in writing and I speculate that the, reason why is that someone back in their early education told them to put a, comma whenever you pause in speaking.

    Please don't think that I'm being critical. I understand that English is a difficult language to learn, and I'm curious to find out the reasons behind various stumbling blocks that learners encounter. I also know that most English speakers, including me, are completely incapable of pronouncing the most common Indian names (e.g., "Patel") properly, so I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else.

  52. Ted said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    Re "Knowosphere": Shouldn't that be "Knwsphere"?

  53. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    I had never reflected on the question (other than to note that "instransitive preposition" seems at first glance to be oxymoronic), but there does seem to be a debate in the literature over whether the "instransitive preposition" analysis is the best one, including an interesting-looking piece by David Lee in a festschrift for Rodney Huddleston titled "The Clause in English."

  54. Mark said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

    @myl and @andreazh. I might suggest the unfortunate need for the existence of a reverse "hobgoblin of little minds" rule. Being consistent for the sake of consistency means when the "little minds" become hobgoblins themselves we can make a up a new, fake, rule to explain our choice and skip the entire step where they point out that we're not following our own rule consistently. That saves you one, long and emotional email exchange per crybaby.

    Also, if you pick just one variation then the custom dictionary in your editor stays short enough to pick through when you add "misteaks" or "hobgobloginning" in there in your haste to get a document out the door.

  55. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    GeorgeW: There's said to be a trend from spaced to hyphenated to solid, but I don't know the evidence for it. Some phrases totally resist it, such as "high school" and "ice cream". My impression is that a lot of people who don't know or don't care about prescriptive rules write all compounds spaced; such a trend can't touch them.

    Eric: Maybe the criterion for "can't" rhyming with "pant" is the massed-mast merger (which is really the lack of a massed-mast split, or so I've read). I've never heard anyone with a Sam-psalm merger. Maybe in Charleston, South Carolina?

  56. Mark F. said,

    January 29, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

    Isn't the fact that written-together compounds exist at all proof of the trend?

  57. stringph said,

    February 2, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

    Freedom is a quite other thing than inconsistency or variability in spelling or hyphenation. If all freedom amounts to is writing 'buildout' in one place and 'build-out' in another and 'build out' in a third, when you mean exactly the same thing each time, is it worth fighting for?

    Shakespeare could spell anything any way, and did, but this doesn't mean he wrote freely; he couldn't directly criticize the monarchy or the Church or influential noblemen, for instance.

    If you want to celebrate inconsistency, feel free – but don't confuse it with freedom.

  58. Saying farewell to Jay-Z’s illustrious hyphen | Death and Taxes said,

    July 19, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

    […] confusion over when the hyphen really is required. One column at the New York Times, for instance, can't seem to decide whether the noun should be "build-out," "buildout," or just plain […]

  59. Saying farewell to Jay-Z’s illustrious hyphen | Brav's Bookmarks said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 8:37 am

    […] confusion over when the hyphen really is required. One column at the New York Times, for instance, can't seem to decide whether the noun should be "build-out," "buildout," or just plain […]

RSS feed for comments on this post