Learning how to spell words in English is challenging as there are so many rules to learn, and compound words can be particularly challenging. For instance, which is correct: “highschool” or “high school”? Also, are there instances when we should hyphenate as in “high-school?”
“High school” is the correct spelling of the noun. “Highschool” is incorrect, even when functioning as an adjective. High school is a highly familiar open compound word, as such most style guides do not recommend using a hyphen when it functions as a phrasal adjective in something like a “high school game.” Still, some style guides view “high-school” as correct, just less common.
In this article, we will examine instances where you may use “high school” or even “high-school.” We will also cover compound nouns in various style guides to further clarify which spelling you should choose.
When choosing the correct spelling for compound words, it’s critical that you consult a reputable dictionary. For American English, the standard is Merriam-Webster, which most style guides use as a basis for their spelling.
High School Definition and Derivatives
In the United States, a high school is a secondary school for children ages 14 to 18. In the US, this corresponds to grades 10–12 and sometimes 9, falling between elementary or primary school and postsecondary school or college (source).
Previously in the US, a high school might include grades seven and up. Now, the US system refers to grades 7 through 9 or 10 as middle school or junior high school.
In the United Kingdom and Australia, you’ll sometimes see “high school” in the names of grammar schools or independent secondary schools (source). The children that attend such schools are between the ages of 11 and 18 (source).
In Canada, the grades that a high school may cover will vary depending on the province that it’s in.
Derivative terms include “high schooler,” a person who attends high school, as well as the adjectival forms “high-school” and “high-schooler.” We’ll discuss whether you should include the hyphen in the section on “high school” as a modifier.
High School Spelling: High School as a Noun
No matter which dictionary you consult, you will only find “high school” and sometimes “high-school” listed. For example, both the Collins English Dictionary and Webster’s Online Dictionary list “high school” as the correct spelling.
As a noun, “high school” is a variable noun or count noun because we can use it as either countable or uncountable in certain contexts.
As a countable noun, we can differentiate between a 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 or count noun is what it sounds like — something we can count. We can use definite articles like “a” or “an” to refer to a specific high school, or we can use the indefinite article “the” for the singular or plural form (source).
We can also use modifiers like “some” or “many” with count nouns as in “some high schools” or “many high schools.”
“High school” can also function as an uncountable noun, depending on how we use it in a sentence. Countable nouns are usually concrete, whereas many uncountable nouns are abstract. Consider the following example.
I graduated from high school in 1999.
While this person undoubtedly graduated from a specific high school, they use the term “high school” more generally as a stage of education from which they advanced. Also note how we didn’t use an article such as “a” or “an” with “high school.” Generally, we don’t use articles with uncountable nouns.
As a Proper Noun
We can also use “high school” as a proper noun when we refer to a specific high school. When we use it as a proper noun instead of a common noun, we capitalize it.
I attend Ramsey High School.
High School Spelling: High School as a Modifier
Whenever you use “high school” as a noun, you will always include a space between “high” and “school,” no matter what style guide you follow. However, sometimes the rules for using “high school” as an adjective are a little more lenient.
Depending on what style guide you follow, we can use a space in between or the hyphenated form, “high-school.” While the hyphenated form is less common, the most important thing to remember is to spell it consistently throughout your text.
Examples of High-School as a Phrasal Adjective
We might apply “high school” as an adjective when referring to a high-school student or the high-school gym as a means to clarify the noun.
Sheila must run so as not to be late for the high-school dance.
Here, “high-school” is an adjective that describes what type of dance Sheila will attend. Without the hyphen, it might be unclear whether “high” modifies “school dance” or “high school” modifies “dance.”
This room for misunderstanding is even more apparent in the next example:
John is a high school student.
John is a high-school student.
There is some room for misinterpretation for someone learning English who might be unfamiliar with high schools as institutions. Since “high” is also a slang term in English for being intoxicated, someone could potentially interpret the first sentence as indicating John is an intoxicated or “high” school student.
However, in the second sentence, the hyphenated form “high-school” clarifies that the words function as one unit modifying “student” to indicate what kind of student John is. Here, we can make a case for the value of the hyphenated compound as leaving no room for misinterpretation.
Use Hyphens with Restraint
Still, since attending high school is an almost universal part of life in the US, many believe that the hyphen is unnecessary since very few people will have trouble understanding what you mean 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 instance, “high school” serves as an adjective describing the subject, whether it’s a teacher, a principal, or a group of students.
Also, one of the most important rules to remember about hyphenated compound words is that we only hyphenate a compound adjective if it goes before the 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 will not make a distinction between “high school,” “highschool,” or “high-school.” However, you do not want to rely solely on spell-checkers for correctness. When deciding whether a compound word is open, closed, or hyphenated, the ultimate authority in American English is Merriam-Webster.
For best accuracy, check Merriam-Webster to see whether its lexicographers have accepted a previously open or hyphenated word as a closed compound. Even if your spell-checker says otherwise, most academic standards rely on Merriam-Webster for their spelling rules.
This is the case for “high school,” as most academic style guides favor the unhyphenated form based on Merriam-Webster. None of the academic style guides use the closed form “highschool.”
What the Style Guides Say
For compound words like “high school,” The American Psychological Association (APA) states that they follow the examples of hyphenated and unhyphenated words that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides (source).
While you will find the hyphenated form “high-school’ in the Collins Dictionary, you will not find it in Merriam-Webster (source).
The Chicago Manual of Style also notes the unhyphenated version provided by Merriam-Webster while accepting the hyphenated form as legitimate, though less common. When we use noun phrases like this attributively, we can skip the hyphen (source).
The Chicago Manual also permits you to skip the hyphen for phrasal adjectives listed in dictionaries when it follows the noun that it modifies. Again, when we do hyphenate, it’s always before the noun and not after.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) largely follows the same rules for hyphenating phrasal adjectives. We would hyphenate grade levels like third-grade or fourth-grade only when we use them as adjectives and not as nouns (source)
The Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) recommends using restraint when forming hyphenated compound words, especially those we are familiar with that are open. “High school” even serves as one of their key examples (source).
A convenient English style guide you may want to invest in is Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Written by Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, you can find this guide on Amazon.
The Nature of Compound Words
English forms compound words by combining two words, sometimes changing their meaning or application. There are three types of compounds: open, closed, and hyphenated.
Compound nouns are two words joined together to name a person, place, or thing. Many are in closed form, such as softball, makeup, and pancakes.
Soft + ball = softball: Girls usually play softball in high school.
Make + up = makeup: Stage makeup is very hard to remove.
Pan + cakes = pancakes: How can you not like pancakes?
“High school” is an open compound word that we seldom see hyphenated and should not see closed. Closed compound words sometimes gain acceptance over time, but the general rule of thumb is to follow Merriam-Webster’s spelling regarding compound words.
For more on compound words, make sure you look at our article, “Home Page vs. Homepage: Which Is Correct?”
By combining the adjective “high,” in the sense of advanced, with “school,” an organization of instruction, we have the resulting compound “high school,” denoting an institution that teaches on a specific level.
Hyphenating Larger Modifiers
Still, what about larger modifiers of three words or more? One good way to decide if you should join multiple adjectives together with a hyphen in front of a noun is first to identify the noun and then experiment with each of the modifying adjectives individually and together until they make sense (source).
While this process seems tedious, it is almost foolproof, and you’ll get lots of practice. For example, you might have a sentence, but it just doesn’t adequately convey your meaning. Consider this example:
My friend has a ten year old Camero.
Take the noun Camaro and try it in the sentence with each adjective.
My friend has a ten Camaro — 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’s less descriptive.
My friend has a ten-year-old Camaro — Yes. It describes how old the Camaro is.
The Origin of High School
“School” appears in Middle English around 1300 to describe students attending a school (source).
Interestingly, the noun “school” comes from the Old English scol and Latin schola, meaning leisure time for learning, a meeting place for instruction, or learned conversation. This ultimately comes from the Greek word skhole, meaning spare time, rest, ease, and idleness.
As cultures were able to develop food surpluses, individuals could devote time previously spent on basic survival to other endeavors, like education.
In the mid-15th century, we see Middle English use “school” as a verb, meaning to educate, reprimand, and discipline. According to Merriam-Webster, the first use of “high” and “school” together, meaning a school for advanced studies, occurred sometime in the late 15th century. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
The term first applied in Scotland. Meanwhile, the first public school in America and technically the first high school was Boston Latin School in Puritan Massachusetts, established in 1635 (source). However, the term “high school” itself does not appear in the US until about 1824.
While many closed compound words began as open compounds only to change with usage and application, “high school” is not one of those words. Merriam-Webster and most style guides use “high school,” even when it functions as an adjective.
When you use it as a proper noun, you should capitalize the noun as in Culver City High School. While some dictionaries list the hyphenated form, and it is technically correct, the most accurate form is with a space between “high” and “school.”