Tag Archives: compound nouns

Small Businessman? Small Business Man? Small-Business Man? How Do You Write This Term?

In my last post, I talked about compound words and inserting hyphens to clarify meaning, using the example of the novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” Although I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time researching that one, and I hope you will read and enjoy it, I do recognize that it’s unlikely to be directly applicable in your everyday writing. So I thought I would follow up on that idea with an example that gets used (and misused) frequently in business writing: what to call a man who runs a small business.

Many people incorrectly write this term as small businessman. It’s easy to see why this error is so common: a man who works in business is a businessman, one word. But businessman is actually a compound noun that lost its hyphen along the way. In its earliest days, going back to 1798, the term was written as business-man, with a hyphen, or business man, two words. It first got squished into one word in 1860, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and that spelling eventually became standard.

If you call someone a small businessman, you’re implying that he is a businessman who is small. While some men may technically fit into this category (e.g., the three-foot-six actor of Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter fame, who also owns a talent agency for actors under five feet tall, Willow Management), I doubt any of them prefer to identify as such.

Sure, he’s technically a small businessman but, more importantly, he’s a small-business man.

If you write the term as three separate words, small business man, you’re no longer actively suggesting that the man is small, but people may read it that way. It’s hard to tell what’s modifying what, and that results in confusion.

The proper way to write the term is small-business man. The compound adjective small-business modifies the noun man, implying a man who is involved in a small business.

The AP Stylebook uses this term as the example for using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.)

Next time you start to write this term, stop and remind yourself that what’s small is the business, not the man. And even if both are small, err on the side of modifying the business—the company wouldn’t feel belittled by being called small, but the man probably would.

What Is a Purple People Eater, Anyway?: Thoughts on Hyphenating Compound Words

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a mild spoiler for the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you haven’t watched it yet, do, but in the meantime, scroll down and start reading the next section. It will still make sense, I promise.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

In episode 11 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) is on trial for kidnapping four women and keeping them in an underground bunker for fifteen years, claiming that the apocalypse had happened. Representing himself in the trial, he uses his folksy mannerisms, guitar playing, and Jon Hamm handsomeness to charm the jury, at one point telling them, “I’d like to play you folks a little song about another ‘craaaaazy’ preacher you might’a heard of. His name was Jesus.” And then he launches into the classic novelty song “The Purple People Eater.”

He was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
Sure looks strange to me

After I recovered from cracking up at this beautifully executed joke, I wondered, Wait, what the hell is a purple people eater? As it turns out, there’s some controversy about this question because the song’s title lacks clarifying punctuation.

The Confusion

“The Purple People Eater,” written and performed by Sheb Wooley, was the song of the summer in 1958—it for six weeks. It tells a very silly story about an alien who comes to earth because he wants to be a rock star and possibly also eat people. From the beginning, people were confused about the meaning of the song. What was purple: the alien or the people?

When multiple adjectives are piled in front of a noun (called , , or in writing guides), the relationship between the words in the phrase can become confusing. Inserting hyphens prevents misreading.

Floor-length gown
Four-year-old child
Blue-collar jobs

Similarly, when two or more words are put together to make one noun, adding a hyphen can clarify that the words are one item (called a ).


If the title had been “The PurplePeople Eater,” the song would clearly be about an alien who eats purple people (a compound adjective modifying a noun). If it had been called “The Purple PeopleEater,” it would clearly be about a purple alien who eats people (an adjective modifying a compound noun). But the song’s title, “The Purple People Eater,” doesn’t use a hyphen, so it can be interpreted either way.

Possibility 1: The Alien Is Purple

I had always assumed, based on the cover of the LP that I had as a youngster, that the one-eyed, one-horned alien was purple.

Most people interpret the song this way. In fact, a low-budget movie based on the song was made in 1988. It starred a young Neil Patrick Harris, along with Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Thora Burch, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and a very purple alien.

You can , but I should warn you that San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack called it “a new low in children’s films.”*

Possibility 2: The People Are Purple

Why do some listeners disagree with the idea that the alien is purple? Because of this lyric:

I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what’s your line
He said it’s eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine
But that’s not the reason that I came to land
I wanna get a job in a rock and roll band

Oldies expert Dusty Rhodes told the column , “It would seem as though the color refers to the people being ingested more than the monster.”

written at the height the song’s popularity declares, “Disk jockeys all over the country have invited their listeners to draw the Purple People Eater (both the jockeys and listeners seemed to miss the fine point that the People Eater is not really purple but merely an eater of purple people).”

That summer, LIFE magazine created a spread featuring some of these drawings, and a photograph in the middle shows Sheb Wooley with a people eater puppet that his wife made. But the photo is in black and white, so we can’t be 100 percent sure that the puppet is purple.

The Answer

I dug through a bunch of archives to get to the bottom of this question. It turns out the song was inspired by a joke another songwriter, Don Robertson, heard from his kids and told to Sheb Wooley.

“What has one eye, one horn, flies, and eats people?”
“A one-eyed, one-horned flying people-eater.”

Wooley decided there was song potential in it. He let it marinate for a few days until “the purple people eater landed in Sheb’s patio. When he saw that part of the riddle was missing—he hadn’t known before that the one-eyed, one-horned fellow was purple—the song was as good as finished,” explains a 1958 Tucson Daily Citizenprofile of Wooley. “I could see him sitting on the lawn,” Wooley recalls, “one eye, one horn, and all purple.”**

That same year, a United Press International article quotes Wooley as saying, “I just gave him a color—purple.”***

In 1988, he told the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) that he “added the purple part ‘for color.’”**** The interview was occasioned by the release of the movie, in which, it turns out, Sheb Wooley has a small part. (In addition to being a songwriter, Wooley was an actor who mostly appeared in Westerns, including Rawhide and High Noon.)

It would seem, then, that the songwriter intended the one-eyed, one-horned flying people eater to be purple. I couldn’t find any interviews with Wooley that directly address the line about eatin’ purple people, but I like to imagine that he wrote that lyric to add to the song’s overall zaniness.

“I think we need humor in music,” Wooley explains to the NEA. “I think we need more humor in the world, period. It’s a healing ointment.” If Wooley were still alive, I think he’d be pleased to see what Kimmy Schmidt has done with his song.

* Stack, Peter. “‘Purple People Eater’: Nothing to Sing About.” San Francisco Chronicle 19 Dec. 1988. Web [NewsBank database]. 27 Apr. 2015.

** Campbell, Bob. “The Living End Is Reached.” Tucson Daily Citizen 28 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

*** United Press International. “Purple People Eater Rates No. 1 on Everybody’s List.” Independent Press-Telegram 15 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

**** Newspaper Enterprise Association. Vare, Ethelie Ann. “Video Update.” The Frederick Post 16 Dec. 1988. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.