Hyphen use disappearing

Is the web to blame for quick changes to language?

Also by this author: Fun with mnemonics: If you’ve been writing ‘pneumonic,’ you’ve got it all wrong.

Language evolution is happening right in plain sight. “Off-site” and “on-site” are in the process of becoming “offsite” and “onsite.” And they’re adding “noun” to their parts of speech as well.

That’s because people are using their own logic instead of dictionaries.

Right now, nearly every dictionary says “off-site” and “on-site” take hyphens. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition, is alone of the major dictionaries in allowing “offsite” and “onsite.” 

But if you look online (which started out as “on line,” moved swiftly to “on-line,” and even faster to “online”), you’ll see “onsite” and “offsite” popping up more frequently. After all, we have “onstage,” “offshore,” and many other words that have lost their hyphens. (Of course, we also have “off-key,” “on-screen,” and others that still have them, most of the time.)

This evolution is apparent in the Associated Press Stylebook. Now, it has entries for both “off-site” and “on-site.” But its “Ask the Editor” online archive shows an answer from 2008 calling for “Two words for storage on site, and hyphenated as a compound modifier preceding the noun, on-site storage.” But it also had an “offsite” entry until 2009, when “Ask the Editors” questioners pointed out the inconsistency.

All the dictionaries are unanimous that both words are only adjectives (“We are having an off-site meeting”) or adverbs (“We are having a meeting on-site”). In other words, you can’t have an “off-site” without another noun coming along. But people ignore that, too, and have “offsites.” That’s a language “offside,” for now, at least.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Outta site."