Grammar The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2 |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

16 responses to “The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2”

  1. Cathy says:


    If it is ‘passerby’ without the hyphen, then the plural could be ‘passerbyes’? I can see this occurring.

    I don’t think so. In this case, I would opt for the hyphen in order to make the plural form clear. Passers-by.

    To me, it is like father-in-law, fathers-in-law, father-in-laws.


    • Those, like you, who prefer the hyphen, probably base it on the point you make. But “passersby” has existed, and been listed in dictionaries, for a long time.

  2. Greg Olsen says:

    What about words with double vowels: Co-operate? Co-op?

    If my aging mind recalls, the rule (once) was that words with double vowels required a hyphen.

    Hyphen use for clarifying or emphasizing is falling from grace it seems:

    Is it “a high school student” or “a high-school student”? That is, is the student high or is s/he in high school?

    “I feed my child processed baby food.” In this case, adding a hyphen between processed and baby leads to a rather disturbing sentence, no?

    • Some double vowel usages have now become accepted. For example, in American English cooperate without a hyphen is preferred, but outside the United States co-operate is used. The word co-op is short for cooperative/co-operative. Co-op is usually hyphenated to avoid confusion with housing for a chicken. It is subjective; however, we would not recommend hyphenating the open compound high school before the word student or hyphenating the term processed baby food: we certainly don’t want to encourage the eating of babies!

  3. Robin H. says:

    Don’t you mean “fewer than 100 years ago…”?

    • In general, fewer refers to things that are countable and less refers to things that are not countable. However, use less than for specific measurements of money, distance, time, or weight.

  4. P H. says:

    Or perhaps: “Welcome to the Enewsletter.”

    • Did you happen to notice in our latest newsletter that we did change “E-Newsletter” to “e-newsletter”? We’re not ready to drop that hyphen. And, we still like our capital letters in

  5. Lisa B says:

    I just wanted to let you know that after your Part 1 hyphen discussion, I went back and changed all my instances of email to e-mail. You pick up bad habits without even realizing it! Your E-newsletter is so helpful in my business writing. Thank you!!

  6. Bill P. says:

    To date, I haven’t used a smartphone, so I think I’ll continue with e-mail. Call me a dinosaur. By the way, should smartphone be hyphenated?

    Texting is going to ruin the proper use of the English language!

    • In our ongoing efforts to be au courant, we Googled smart phone and got virtually no hits. The smartphone-smart phone ratio is about 95-5 (and virtually no instances of smart-phone).

  7. Rick B. says:

    Two words providing meaning to a single word that I witnessed transform over the years was database. It was first written as two words, data base, then data-base, and now database.

  8. Liz C. says:

    [Regarding Rule 3 of Hyphens with Suffixes]
    You know, after looking at that word for about 20 minutes, I decided I would put a second hyphen between a and thon: dance-a-thon.

    • An internet search does predominantly reflect the spelling “dance-a-thon” (though none of these are from any dictionary). “Dance-athon” is a portmanteau word. The -athon comes from “marathon.” There is no hyphen in “marathon,” so we decided that the second hyphen would be hard to justify.

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