Mastering the spelling of English words can be challenging due to the multitude of rules and the complexities of compound words. The question arises: is it correct to write “highschool” or “high school”? Should we use a hyphen, as in “high-school”?
The correct spelling of the noun is “high school.” “Highschool” is incorrect, even when used as an adjective. “High school” is an open compound word that is widely used and recognized, and most style guides do not recommend using a hyphen when it functions as a phrasal adjective, such as in “high school game.” However, some style guides consider “high-school” to be correct but less common.
In this article, we will explore situations where “high school” or even “high-school” can be used. We will also examine the guidelines provided by various style guides to determine the preferred spelling for compound nouns.
When determining the correct spelling of compound words, consulting a reputable dictionary is crucial. For American English, Merriam-Webster is the standard dictionary that most style guides rely on for spelling.
High School Definition and Derivatives
In the United States, a high school is a secondary school for students aged 14 to 18. It corresponds to grades 10-12, and sometimes includes grade 9, bridging the gap between elementary or primary school and college (source).
In the past, high schools in the United States may have included grades seven and up. However, the current system refers to grades 7 through 9 or 10 as middle school or junior high school.
In the United Kingdom and Australia, the term “high school” is sometimes used in the names of grammar schools or independent secondary schools (source). Students attending these schools are typically between the ages of 11 and 18 (source).
In Canada, the grade levels covered by a high school vary depending on the province.
Derivative terms of “high school” include “high schooler,” referring to a person who attends high school, as well as the adjectival forms “high-school” and “high-schooler.” Whether to use a hyphen in “high school” as a modifier will be discussed later in the article.
High School Spelling: High School as a Noun
In any reputable dictionary, you will find only “high school” and sometimes “high-school” as the listed spellings. For example, both the Collins English Dictionary and Webster’s Online Dictionary consider “high school” to be the correct spelling.
As a noun, “high school” is a variable noun or count noun, meaning it can be used in both singular and plural forms in certain contexts.
As a countable noun, we can distinguish between a single high school and multiple high schools.
What high school did you attend?Mr. Henderson taught at several high schools before he retired.I passed by the high school on the way to work.Many high schools participated in the program.
A countable noun, as the name suggests, is something that can be counted. We use the indefinite article “a” or “an” with a countable noun to refer to a specific high school. We can also use the definite article “the” for both singular and plural forms. Additionally, modifiers like “some” or “many” can be used with count nouns, such as “some high schools” or “many high schools” (source).
“High school” can also function as an uncountable noun, depending on the context in which it is used. Uncountable nouns are usually abstract in nature, while countable nouns tend to be concrete. Consider the following example.
I graduated from high school in 1999.
Although the speaker undoubtedly graduated from a specific high school, they use the term “high school” more generally to refer to a stage of education they completed. Notice that we don’t use an article like “a” or “an” with “high school.” Generally, we don’t use articles before uncountable nouns.
As a Proper Noun
When referring to a specific high school, we can use “high school” as a proper noun and capitalize it.
I attend Ramsey High School.
High School Spelling: High School as a Modifier
When using “high school” as a noun, a space must always be present between “high” and “school,” regardless of the style guide you follow. However, the rules become more flexible when using “high school” as an adjective.
Depending on the style guide, you may find both the spaced and hyphenated forms acceptable. Although the hyphenated form is less common, it is essential to maintain consistent spelling throughout your text.
Examples of Hyphenated “High-School” as a Phrasal Adjective
We can use “high school” as an adjective when describing a high-school student or the high-school gymnasium to provide clarification.
Sheila must run to avoid being late for the high-school dance.
In this example, “high-school” acts as an adjective that describes the type of dance Sheila will attend. Without the hyphen, it might be unclear whether “high” modifies “school dance” or “high school” modifies “dance.”
This potential confusion becomes even more apparent in the following example:John is a high school student.John is a high-school student.
Someone learning English might misinterpret the first sentence, as “high” is also slang for being intoxicated. They might mistakenly believe that John is an intoxicated school student. In the second sentence, the hyphenated form “high-school” clarifies that “high-school” functions as a single unit modifying “student,” indicating what kind of student John is. Here, the hyphenated compound eliminates any room for misinterpretation.
Limited Use of Hyphens
However, since attending high school is a common experience for most people in the US, many believe that the hyphen is unnecessary because the meaning is clear even without it.
Mr. Jones is our high school math teacher.Mr. Johnson served as the high school principal.The high school students studied for their exams.
In each of these instances, “high school” functions as an adjective describing the subject, whether it is a teacher, principal, or group of students.
Furthermore, it is important to note that compound adjectives are only hyphenated when they appear before a noun but not after.
He purchased an over-the-counter cough syrup.They gave him some free items over the counter.
Spell-Checkers vs. Dictionaries
Many spell-checkers do not differentiate between “high school,” “highschool,” or “high-school.” However, it is not advisable to rely solely on spell-checkers for correctness. The ultimate authority in American English for determining the spelling of compound words is Merriam-Webster.
To ensure accuracy, refer to Merriam-Webster to determine whether a previously open or hyphenated compound word has been accepted as a closed compound. Even if your spell-checker suggests otherwise, most academic standards rely on Merriam-Webster for spelling rules.
This is precisely the case for “high school,” as most academic style guides prefer the unhyphenated form, based on Merriam-Webster’s recommendations. None of the academic style guides endorse the closed form “highschool.”
Style Guide Recommendations
The American Psychological Association (APA) follows the hyphenation and open/closed compound examples given by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (source) for words like “high school.”
While the hyphenated form “high-school” is listed in the Collins Dictionary, it is not included in Merriam-Webster (source).
The Chicago Manual of Style acknowledges the preferred unhyphenated form as provided by Merriam-Webster, but it considers the hyphenated form to be legitimate, albeit less common. According to The Chicago Manual, when using noun phrases like this attributively, you may omit the hyphen (source).
The Chicago Manual also permits the omission of the hyphen for phrasal adjectives listed in dictionaries when they follow the noun they modify. However, when hyphenating, it is always done before the noun and never after.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) largely follows similar rules regarding hyphenation of phrasal adjectives. Grade levels such as “third-grade” or “fourth-grade” would be hyphenated only when used as adjectives, not as nouns (source).
The Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) advises caution when hyphenating compound words, especially those that are commonly written as open compounds. “High school” is listed as a prime example (source).
A handy style guide worth considering is “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House. This guide is available on Amazon.
The Nature of Compound Words
Compound words are formed in English by combining two or more words, sometimes altering their meaning or function. There are three types of compounds: open, closed, and hyphenated.
Compound nouns are formed by joining two words to create a single word to name a person, place, or thing. Many compound nouns appear in closed form, such as “softball,” “makeup,” and “pancakes.”
Soft + ball = softball: Girls typically play softball in high school.
Make + up = makeup: Removing stage makeup can be challenging.
Pan + cakes = pancakes: How can anyone not love pancakes?
“High school” is an open compound word that is rarely hyphenated and should not be closed. Closed compounds may sometimes become accepted over time, but it is generally wise to follow Merriam-Webster’s spelling guidelines for compound words.
For more information on compound words, refer to our article “Home Page vs. Homepage: Which Is Correct?”
By combining the adjective “high,” meaning advanced, with “school,” an educational institution, we create the compound “high school,” which refers to an educational institution that provides instruction at an advanced level.
Hyphenating Longer Modifiers
What about larger modifiers consisting of three or more words? One effective method to determine whether to hyphenate multiple adjectives before a noun is to first identify the noun and then experiment with each adjective individually and together until the intended meaning is conveyed (source).
Although this process may seem laborious, it is a reliable approach that provides ample practice. For example, if you have a sentence that does not adequately convey your intended meaning, consider the following:
My friend has a ten year old Camero.
Take the noun “Camaro” and attempt to use it in the sentence with each of the adjectives.
My friend has a ten Camaro — Do they have ten Camaros? No.
My friend has a year Camaro — What year?
My friend has an old Camaro — It makes sense, but now it is less descriptive.
My friend has a ten-year-old Camaro — Yes. It conveys the age of the Camaro.
The Origin of High School
The term “school” first appeared in Middle English around 1300 to denote students attending an educational institution (source).
Interestingly, the noun “school” derives from the Old English word “scol” and the Latin word “schola,” which signify leisure time for learning, a meeting place for instruction, or intellectual conversation. These words ultimately trace back to the Greek word “skhole,” which means spare time, rest, ease, and idleness.
The ability to develop food surpluses allowed cultures to dedicate time previously spent on basic survival to other pursuits, such as education.
In the mid-15th century, the Middle English verb “school” appeared, signifying the act of educating, reprimanding, and disciplining. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “high school,” meaning a school for advanced studies, emerged in the late 15th century. Scotland was the first to use this term. The first public school in America, and technically the first high school, was Boston Latin School in Puritan Massachusetts, established in 1635. However, the term “high school” itself did not appear in the United States until around 1824.
While many closed compounds originated as open compounds and later transformed through usage and application, “high school” is not one of those words. Merriam-Webster and most style guides endorse “high school” as the preferred form, even when it functions as an adjective.
When used as a proper noun, “high school” should be capitalized, as in “Culver City High School.” Although some dictionaries include the hyphenated form, and it is technically correct, the most accurate form is with a space between “high” and “school.”