Skillset vs. skill set?

Skill set” is an open, compound noun that means ‘one’s range or set of skills.’ “Skillset” and “skill-set” are incorrect spelling variants.

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What is the difference between skillset and skill set?

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the noun “skill set” as “a person’s range of skills or abilities,” whereas Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary states it’s a “set of skills” that apply to professional and creative endeavors (“Skill set” 1637). 

Now, not all dictionaries provide a definition of “skill set,” but those who do always list the noun as two words (open compound, no hyphen). “Skillset” and “skill-set” do not appear in dictionaries at all, leaving us to assume they are incorrect, variant spellings. 

How is skill set more correct than skillset or skill-set?

There’s no expert commentary on why “skill set” is correct over “skillset” or “skill-set.” However, standard grammar rules help clarify why an open compound is more appropriate than a closed or hyphenated one. As explained by Grammarly

  • Open compound words contain a modifying adjective and noun to create a new noun. 
  • Closed compound words typically represent “official” adaptations of open or hyphenated words (initially recognized as two separate words). 
  • Hyphenated compounds often occur when an open compound modifies a proceeding noun (which is never the case with “skill set”). 

It also doesn’t help that the noun’s related words are equally as confusing. For instance, Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) points out how many English writers misuse terms like “skillful,” “skilful,” and “skill-less” (834). 

Just because it’s good-to-know, GMEU clarifies how “skillful” is the American English spelling of “skilful” (British English). Meanwhile, the grammar reference states the hyphenated “skill-less” is the correct spelling over “skilless” (834). 

GMEU states nothing about the specificities over “skill set” and “skillset,” leaving the power of suggestion to modern dictionaries and an editor’s stern eye. 

What would a professional editor prefer?: skill set or skillset?

In case you are curious about what professional editing books prefer between “skill set” and “skillset,” here’s a run-down of what The Word Counter could find:

  • The AP Stylebook’s online blog, “Ask the Editor,” writes, “two words: skill set.” 
  • The Chicago Manual of Style writes “skill set” in their transcription of an interview for their blog “CMOS Shop Talk.
  • The Guardian and Observer Style Guide does not mention “skill set” or “skillset.” However, the publications’ content consistently uses “skill set” more often than “skillset,” where the latter often resembles a type of industry jargon.  

Notable publications that used “skill set” more often than “skillset” in 2020 include:

  • The New York Times
  • The Los Angeles Times 
  • The Washington Post
  • The Boston Globe
  • The Texas Tribune
  • Reuters 
  • Chicago Tribune
  • National Public Radio

Understanding the composition of “skill set

The word skill set consists of two words: the nouns skill and set. However, “skill” acts as an adjective because it modifies the “set,” creating one word to represent one noun. Let’s take a look at how the nouns’ meanings allow us to use them as one.  

What is the definition of skill?

The word skill is a noun that describes the proficiency, talent, ability, or trade required to complete a task. As a mass noun, the noun specifically means ‘the ability or expertise to do something well,’ but as a count noun, we use “skill” to reference a ‘particular ability.’ 

For example, 

[Mass noun]: “It takes great skill to become a healthcare administrator.” 

[Count noun]: “Shayla’s Linkedin lists ‘problem-solving’ as a skill.”  

What is the definition of set?

In regards to “skill set,” the word “set” is a noun that means a ‘collection or category of things that are relevant to each other.’ We use the noun similarly for sentences like, “She gave me a paint set for my birthday” or “He has a set of spare gloves.” 

Since a “set” consists of countable things, this means a “skill set” involves a list of ‘particular abilities,’ personal qualities, or experiences that render themselves useful to a particular task or role. 

Where do the words “skill” and “set” come from?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the noun “set” appeared in Late Middle English in the sense of a “religious sect.” Before then, the noun derived from Old French sette for ‘sequence’ (akin to secte for ‘religious community’) and Latin secta for ‘a following.’ In contrast, the noun “skill” entered Old English as scele for ‘knowledge,’ and originated from Old Norse skil for ‘discernment.’ 

What is another word for skill set?

There are several English words that represent different skill sets, but none of them are perfect synonyms of “skill set” alone. When writing a cover letter, you’ll likely use comparable terms like expertise, experience, knowledge, proficiency, background, or familiarity

While creating a resume, you can also customize your “skill sets” using specific terms like: 

  • Hard skills: any skill, knowledge, and qualification that is teachable and observable, such as a college degree, software experience, or foreign language proficiency. 
  • Soft skills: character traits and experiences that make someone an ideal employee, such as adaptability, teamwork, creative thinking, or conflict resolution. 
  • Transferable skills: skills that someone can use throughout multiple industries and work environments, such as writing, public speaking, or critical thinking. 
  • Technical skills: the understanding and capabilities of tasks within a specialized trade like information technology or business law. Examples of technical skills might include data analysis, technical writing, or project management. 

How to use skill set in a sentence?

English writers can use the noun “skill set” as singular or plural. Just make sure the noun consists of two words (and never hyphenated). 

Example sentences:

  • “Soon, space may no longer be a relatively pristine environment where only specially trained individuals with a particular skill set can live and work.” — Axios 
  • “Stop trying to master one skill. Instead, build a skill set.” — The New York Times
  • “They’re a diverse set of players, but Lee says that they all share a particular dual skill set.” — Rolling Stone
  • “It’s a way to flex a new skill set, and it’s an opportunity for your boss and higher-ups to see what else you have to bring to the table.” — Vogue

Test Yourself!

Review your grammar skills with a multiple-choice quiz on “skillset” vs. “skill set.” 

  1. True or false: All English dictionaries recognize the word skill set, where it appears as one word.
    a. True 
    b. False
  2. The word skill set is a ___________. 
    a. Adjective
    b. Verb
    c. Noun
    d. A and C
  3. Which of the following are standard spellings? 
    a. Skillset
    b. Skill-set
    c. Skill-less
    d. Skilless 
  4. Which writing style authority specifically recommends using skill set as two words? 
    a. Chicago Manual of Style
    b. The online AP Stylebook 
    c. The Guardian and Observer Style Guide
    d. The New York Times 
  5. Which of the following are near-synonyms of the noun skill set?
    a. Expertise
    b. Background
    c. Proficiency 
    d. All of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. C
  4. B
  5. D

Sources

  1. Compound words.” Grammarly Blog, Grammarly, 2020. 
  2. Garner, B. “Skillful,” “Skill-less.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 834. 
  3. Harper, D. “Set (n.1).Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline.com, 2020. 
  4. Kramer, M. “Brands are changing space.” Axios, Axios Media, 6 Oct 2020. 
  5. Preeti Malani talks about her career in journalism, medicine, and . . . journalism.” CMOS Shop Talk, Chicago Manual of Style, 13 Oct 2015. 
  6. Set.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  7. Shteamer, H. “Rush’s Geddy Lee: My 10 Favorite Bassists.” Rolling Stone, RollingStone.com, 2 July 2020. 
  8. Skill.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  9. Skill.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  10. Skills.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  11. “Skill set.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p.  1637.
  12. Skill set.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  13. Should I write skill set or skillset?AP Stylebook, The Associated Press, 2020. 
  14. The Guardian and Observer style guide.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media Limited, 2020. 
  15. Valeris, M. “How to Really Refresh Your Career in 2018.” Vogue, Vogue.com, 31 Dec 2017.