An American Editor

October 24, 2012

On Language: When Should Two Become One?

I know we’ve already had a couple of discussions regarding hyphenation, especially hyphenating compound phrases, but there is still more to discuss: When should two become one?

If you check Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed), you will find long-standing with no recognition of longstanding. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed) gives you long-standing or longstanding, with the hyphenated version preferred. The New York Times uses longstanding. The style manuals, such as Chicago (16th ed), tell you to closeup prefixes such as post, pre, and anti, even when a double letter occurs.

What no one seems to tell us is when two should become one.

I have come to the conclusion that the test is whether the combined form can be viewed as a single word; that is, we hyphenate the phrase when the phrase can have meaning that is different from that of the single word form or when creating a single word is illogical on its face.

A good example of the test is the phrase small animal practice. First, in the absence of the hyphen we know the phrase can mean either a practice that deals with small animals or a small practice that deals with animals. When we add the hyphen so that it becomes small-animal practice, we know it means a practice that deals with small animals. But it would be illogical to make the phrase smallanimal practice a single word because the single word smallanimal has no meaning in English; each word has to stand on its own and can be combined only with a hyphen to be logical within the constraints of English.

Contrast small animal practice with long-standing practice. In the latter case, long-standing and longstanding are both meaningful and logical. In addition, each can stand on its own as a “word.” This, I think, is the logic behind closing up certain prefixes and suffixes rather than hyphenating them.

Certainly, as can be discerned from the examples above, there can be no confusion when long-standing becomes longstanding, but that is not true of small animal practice, which brings us back to the ultimate rule of making writing smoothly understandable without loss of precision of meaning.

Interestingly, Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), simply states for the entry long-standing “adj. So spelled (with the hyphen).” That’s the complete discussion. No explanation why we must use the hyphen nor recognition of the trend to do away with the hyphen.

I suppose that the argument can fairly be made that long-lived and long-range are hyphenated adjectives so why make an exception of long-standing? Conversely, one could ask why these two phrases cannot also be seen as single words and thus should be joined rather than hyphenated.

I admit I’m torn. I vacillate between long-standing and longstanding, but only consider long-range and long-lived. Invariably I end up with long-standing, but I do want to be able to justify my use of longstanding for those projects when I (or the author) do use the single form. The only sufficient justification I can give is that the meaning and readability are the same in both forms.

Spelling and grammar need to be viewed with the same lens and focus: What matters is readability and clarity of meaning; all else pales in importance. If the test is met, then what does the addition or subtraction of a hyphen matter? In the case of a compound adjective as in small animal practice, there are differences in both meaning and readability between small animal practice, small-animal practice, and smallanimal practice. In the case of longstanding, there is no difference between longstanding and long-standing, but long standing does have different meaning and readability characteristics.

The professional editor needs to make a decision on when two becomes one and be able to support that decision. English changes and we need to change with it, but we also need to understand why the change occurs and be able to justify it by applying the rules of meaning and readability.


  1. I feel your pain. But I take comfort in the explanatory notes that appear in tiny type at the beginning of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (p. 10a): [startquote] Variation in the styling of compound words in English is frequent and widespread. It is often completely acceptable to choose freely among open, hyphenated, and closed alternatives (as life style, life-style, or lifestyle). However, to show all the stylings that are found for English compounds would require space that can be better used for other information. So this dictionary limits itself to a single styling for a compound. . . . When a compound is widely used and one styling predominates, that styling is shown. When a compound is uncommon or when evidence indicates that two or three stylings are approximately equal in frequency, the styling shown in based on the analogy of similar compounds. [endquote]

    In other words, dictionary editors pick one form to display, but that isn’t intended to stigmatize other choices. Of course, the dictionary’s choices have a self-reinforcing effect: Many writers and copyeditors will use whatever form is shown in the dictionary. But if an editor feels that two words have been engaged long enough (hyphenated), I say “Go ahead and marry them, by the powers invested in you by the state of editorial judgment.”


    Comment by Amy Einsohn — October 25, 2012 @ 2:10 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Amy, for the quote. Now that you have repeated it, I remember reading it but it was so long ago, that it disappeared along with the synapses to which it was attached. Of course, the problem is compounded when you get directives from recognized grammarians like Garner.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by americaneditor — October 25, 2012 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

  2. I essentially agree with your point (clarity trumps all), but question “long-standing and longstanding are both meaningful and logical.” How are both logical? My eyeball test (does it look funny?) says that both are fine, but I can’t justify why, especially when compared to other examples you cite later. Can you elaborate?

    As a former ESL teacher, I can say that the when-to-hyphenate issue is a real head scratcher for students and causes a ton of frustration. I wish I’d something as clear as “small animal hospital” to use as an example since it’s a very good one.


    Comment by le cul en rows — October 28, 2012 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

    • By logical, I meant understandable in comparison. Compare smallanimal and longstanding. The former is not understandable, thus not logical; the latter is understandable, thus logical — as I intended to use logical (as an almost synonym for understandable).


      Comment by americaneditor — October 29, 2012 @ 1:42 am | Reply

  3. I think the reason we don’t normally use “longlived” or “longrange” is partly due to pronunciation. The glottal stop with the “g” of “long” makes it awkward to shift immediately to an “l” or an “r” (it feels kind of peanut-butter sticky, at least with my accent); on the other hand (to me?), it is relatively easy to drop straight from “g” to “s” without garbling the sounds. So it’s easier to pronounce “longstanding” as one word than to pronounce the others that way while remaining comprehensible.


    Comment by Katie — May 29, 2013 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  4. I would hyphenate if it comes before the noun, and make it one word after.

    1) He had a long-standing complaint of pain.

    2) His complaint of pain was longstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Esha — January 31, 2015 @ 11:05 pm | Reply

  5. I’m a freelance copyeditor (not free-lance copy-editor) of medical/science journals and I decided long ago that the ones who INFORM the dictionary makers are the copyeditors of the world! I close up hyphenated forms when it seems to me that they are commonly understood words that no longer need the hyphen–today used to be styled to-day, for instance. Rules are OK as guidance but in English, which is highly irregular, searching for logic is often bootless. Thus, long-lived remains hyphenated and longstanding doesn’t simply because longlived looks clumsy (for now) and longstanding doesn’t.


    Comment by John Vollmer — February 8, 2015 @ 9:34 am | Reply

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