Back Yard, Backyard, or Back-Yard?

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What do you think?

Tom had a ____ barbecue right where you’d expect: in his ____!

A. backyard for both
B. back yard for both
C. back-yard for both
D. backyard in 1st blank, back yard in 2nd
E. back-yard in 1st blank, back yard in 2nd

Compound words are often tricky and that includes this term for the property behind your house. In fact, there’s no clear right answer to this question. Maybe you hate that. Maybe you have come to expect it here. Either way, you’ve got to deal with it. The rules of English are often moving targets. Sometimes they change gradually over time. Sometimes they change suddenly. And sometimes no clear rule emerges at all–or at least hasn’t yet.

This seems to be the case for back yard.

I bring it up because I’ve been rereading Bill Walsh’s book Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print–and How to Avoid Them. He mentions backyard in chapter two where he gives advice on dictionaries and their limitations.

Style guides differ on backyard. According to Grammarist, the Washington Post is “all over the place” on the backyard vs. back yard vs. back-yard issue. They don’t seem to have a clear rule for their publication. The New York Times, Guardian, and the Globe and Mail seem to use backyard exclusively.

Popular usage is definitely trending toward one-word compounding. That seems most often to be the case-spaces and then hyphens tend to disappear over time. Look at the N-gram chart as proof.

So, using backyard as both noun and adjective is in line with current usage.

Grammar purists, however, tend to resist this trend toward compounding. They will most likely prefer back yard as a noun, and the hyphenated back-yard as an adjective. This conforms to the general principle of compound-adjective formation. So if you are afraid of offending a persnickety grandmother, you’d be safest with E above.

Others prefer back yard as the noun and backyard as the adjective. Bill Walsh makes a good case for this preference. He argues that there is a clear difference in pronunciation between the adjective form and noun form. Read the sample sentence and notice that with the adjective, the accent is on the first syllable: BACKyard. With the noun, both syllables are equally stressed. Walsh points out that we stress the first syllable in the words backache, backbeat, backbite, and backhand, while we stress both in back seat, back pain, and back taxes. That seems to be a good reason to spell this word differently depending on part of speech.

The only no-no would be to use the hyphenated version as a noun. There just isn’t a good reason for that.

That means the only answer I’d consider wrong in the question above is C. You can make a logical case for any of the other four answers.

As usual, the most important thing for your writing is that, whichever option you prefer, you stay consistent.

*****

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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