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Why are backyard and backseat single words while front yard and front seat are two? It seems exceedingly strange to me.

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  • Wikipedia gives both the open and closed forms for (the non-attributive usage, at least, of) backyard: 'A back yard (or backyard) is a yard at the back of a house, common in suburban developments in the Western world.' As stated elsewhere, there has been an evolution along the lines open compound ... hyphenated form ... solid compound with many compound words. This has usually been faster in the States than in the UK, and the rate seems to have increased in recent years. At any point in time, different forms may be in use. // Some compounds resist ... – Edwin Ashworth Aug 3 '16 at 7:48
  • the trend because the solid form would be a strange spelling (stomachache), an inconvenient spelling (stateowned) etc. Possibly, the t sound is considered to necessitate a larger jolt in pronunciation, more faithfully represented by the open form. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 3 '16 at 7:58
  • Thanks for moving my question, whoever did, and apologies for posting it in the wrong place to begin with. – Suzie NYC Aug 4 '16 at 13:58
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How do dictionaries handle 'back' words and 'front' words?

Consider the set of fused nouns listed in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) that start with back—words that are rendered as closed-up (nonhyphenated) single words:

backache, backbeat, backbench[er], backbiter, backblock, backboard, backbone, backbreaker, backchat, backcloth, backcountry, backcourt, backcross, backdrop, backfield, backfill, backfire, backfit, backflip, backflow, background[er], backhand, backhoe, backhouse, backlash, backlight, backlist, backlog, backpack[er], backrest, backsaw, backscatter, backseat, backset, backside, backslap[per], backslash, backslide[r], backspace, backspin, backsplash, backstabber, backstay, backstitch, backstop, backstory, backstreet, backstretch, backstroke[r], backswimmer, backswing, backsword, backup, backwash, backwater, backwoods, backwrap, backyard

All of the words in this list are instantly recognizable combinations of back plus another extant word. Now consider the set of fused nouns in the Eleventh Collegiate that start with front and (again) yield closed-up (nonhyphenated) single words:

frontcourt, frontispiece

Frontispiece is a bit of an oddball here because, according to Merriam-Webster, it came into English (via Middle French) from Late Latin frontispicium ("facade") already a single fused word. Nevertheless, it has some characteristics of a fused word pair, and frontcourt looks lonely by itself.

The Eleventh Collegiate also lists a few hyphenated nouns that may eventually lose their hyphen and become fused single words. Here are the ones that begin with back-:

back-checker, back-formation

And here is the one that begins with front-:

front-runner

Finally, some nouns consist of two separate words but have a sufficiently distinctive meaning that the Eleventh Collegiate includes entries for them. These have back as their first element:

back bacon, back burner, back channel, back dive, back judge, back matter, back mutation, back order, back room, back talk

(Note that this list excludes noun terms such as back door, back end, back office, and back stage that the dictionary excludes on grounds that the two words together don't connote anything special that one wouldn't surmise from adding the meanings of the two individual words together.)

And here are the two-word nouns beginning with front that have entries in the Eleventh Collegiate:

front bench, front burner, front dive, front end, front line, front man, front matter, front money, front office, front room

Conspicuously absent from these lists are both front terms that the poster asks about: front seat and front yard. But the overall list of inconsistencies between front words and back words is somewhat larger. Here are the pairs that receive inconsistent treatment in the dictionary:

backbench and front bench; back end [not listed] and front end; backlist and front list [not listed]; back line [not listed] and front line; back office [not listed] and front office; backseat and front seat [not listed]; backyard and front yard [not listed]

There are also undoubtedly many pairs (such as back end and front end) both of whose terms are excluded—but in those cases, we can assume that Merriam-Webster views both terms as being composed of separate words.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) often agrees with the spelling and entry choices in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary, but not always. These noun terms appear in the Fifth AHDEL but not in the Eleventh Collegiate:

backchecker, backdoor, back end, backhaul, back nine, back office, backpressure, backpropagation, backrush, backshore, frontlist, front nine, front yard

These noun terms appear in the Eleventh Collegiate but not in the Fifth AHDEL:

back bacon, back burner, backblock, backcloth, backfit, backhouse, back judge, back order, backstreet, backwrap, front burner, front dive

And these noun terms receive different treatment in the two dictionaries:

backchannel [AHDEL] vs. back channel [MW]; backformation or back formation [AHDEL] vs. back-formation [MW]; backroom or back room [AHDEL] vs. back room [MW]; back seat [AHDEL] vs. backseat [MW]; backyard also back yard [AHDEL] vs. backyard [MW]; frontline also front line [AHDEL] vs. front line [MW]; frontman also front man [AHDEL] vs. front man [MW]; frontrunner [AHDEL] vs. front-runner [MW]


Why the inconsistent treatment?

The first thing to observe is that, whereas Merriam-Webster inconsistently endorses backseat and backyard and (by omission) front seat and front yard, American Heritage does not. The Fifth AHDEL mentions back seat, backyard also back yard, and front yard, and (by omission) it endorses front seat. So it is quite possible to follow AHDEL style and use word pairs that are not inconsistent (back seat/front seat and back yard/front yard).

As for the larger question of why inconsistencies such as backbench vs. front bench crop up (in both dictionaries), I suspect that the much larger number of closed-up back words (in comparison to closed-up front words) influences writers' readiness to render other noun terms starting with that word as fused words rather than as hyphenated forms or open two-word terms.

Note that some back words are counterparts not of front words but of fore words (virtually all of which are unhyphenated single words, since fore- is a true prefix)—for example, forechecker/back-checker, foreground/background, and forehand/backhand—and others of which seem to be using back as a short form of backward, as in backflip, backflow, backstroke, and backwash.

Whatever the reason, the number of fused back words is much larger than the number of fused front words, which makes the temptation to close up previously separated two-word terms such as backchannel, backformation, and backroom much stronger than the tendency to close up previously separated two-word terms such as frontman. The latter still happens (as the Fifth AHDEL makes clear) but it happens less often than the former.

Viewed in this larger context, backseat and backyard versus front seat and front yard are part of a pattern of orthography in which back word pairs are far more likely to be fused than front word pairs are.

  • Thank you very much; this is very interesting and informative. – Suzie NYC Aug 19 '16 at 2:47
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You can also say "back yard" and "back seat".

When words are said together often enough, there is a tendency for them to merge into compound words.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_(linguistics)

In English this tends to be a slow, organic process.

Another reason (which doesn't fit your examples) for the creation of compound words is to describe novel concepts, such as new technology. Other languages, such as German, will often create a new compound word from other native words to describe any novel concept. In English, novel concepts are often described using a new single (ie non-compound) word which is actually derived from one or more Greek words. Thus we have for example "helicopter" in English, which comes from the Greek "heliko ptero" meaning "spiral wing". The German word for helicopter is "hubschrauber" which comes from the German words "hub schraube", or "lift screw".

Both approaches have different advantages. In German, there's less to learn - you can translate the compound word back into the simpler words and figure out what is being described. But, it can lead to long, unwieldy words like rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz- "the law for the delegation of monitoring beef labeling." In English, if we wanted to make a single word to describe this we'd probably look to some serial number from the official documentation and call it the CF27 or somesuch, eg "Have you got the CF27 for this beef, mate?"

  • While it's true that German (and Dutch) form compound words that can become very long, your representation is somewhat simplisitic. The major difference is that compound notions like front yard would be written as one word (Dutch: voortuin) but the extremely long words are not "normal" words in everyday use, they are novelties or jokes, just like we find sentences with repeating words in English (had, buffalo). The formation of compounds out of existing words is common enough in English but usually we keep the words apart with a space. – oerkelens Aug 3 '16 at 8:45
  • @oerkelens the reference to "rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz" was a lighthearted inclusion and perhaps wasn't useful to illustrate the point. The last paragraph really isn't necessary and was added as an afterthought. If you think it detracts from the answer then I'm happy to remove it. – Max Williams Aug 3 '16 at 8:47
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    No harm done :) Just wanted to point out that it's a joke, since I have met people who actually believed German was extremely sequipedalian. In reality, those Germans are likely not only to know and use that standard number instead of an insanely long single word, they're likely to have written the document that's referred to :P – oerkelens Aug 3 '16 at 8:53
  • Yeah, I didn't think that Germans regularly walked around saying 20 syllable words to each other, but it is a bit of a cliche to laugh at them for making the word up. I feel a bit like a contestant on QI now, which makes you Stephen Fry I suppose. – Max Williams Aug 3 '16 at 8:57
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I'm no English maven, but While I'm not aware of any reference to support it, I've habitually fused words like backseat, backyard, backstreet only when using them as adjectives ("backyard BBQ"), and separated them for the noun form ("in the back yard", with "back" as an adjective; "which yard?" "the back yard"). I suppose this "rule" cannot be applied across the board for the long list of "front" and "back" word discussed here, but I always think about it now when facing such a choice.

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