A Word, Please: Dictionaries are not all the same

I don't usually comment on online articles or websites. Partly, it's because of the company that would put me in.

Not that I think every online commenter is crazy. On the contrary, I'm sure there are several who could pass a mental competency test. But I don't like the idea of having my knee-jerk reactions recorded for posterity.

Who knows? There may be a day when I decide that I was wrong all along about Donald Trump's hair or the artistic merits of "Two and a Half Men."

So when I'm tempted to add my voice to a chorus of online comments, I usually just keep my virtual trap shut. But a recent discussion about the term "healthcare" proved too tempting to avoid. People had questions and I had answers. And in a world where so many folks are so sure they know it all, a chance to interact with people open to learning facts was just too tempting to pass up.

The discussion took place at Merriam-Webster's online dictionary under the listing for "health care." Several people had asked why, if the dictionary lists it as two words, they so often saw it written as one word or hyphenated.

The reason, as I wrote on the site, is that dictionaries disagree. And because different publishers follow different dictionaries, a newspaper article about the cost of "healthcare" and a book about the cost of "health care" can both be right.

Indeed, that's how it usually plays out. News media often follow the "Associated Press Stylebook," which uses "Webster's New World College Dictionary," which says "healthcare" is one word. But many book and magazine publishers follow the "Chicago Manual of Style," which defers to "Merriam-Webster's Collegiate." And in that dictionary, "health care" is two words.

People had more questions, including: Why would Webster's contradict itself like this in two different editions of its own dictionary? It was a good question whose little-known answer should probably be better known: Nobody owns the name "Webster's." Competing publishing houses put it on their dictionaries. So "Merriam-Webster's" and "Webster's New World" are not relatives, they're competitors.

There was still one more question weighing on users' minds: What about the adjective form? Is that "health-care," "healthcare" or "health care"? Seven people — the bulk of the commenters at the site — wanted to know.

The online dictionary, as these astute readers had noticed, listed "health care" as a noun only and not an adjective. To understand how to handle the adjective form, you have to understand something about English nouns.

Look up the words "shoe," "cotton" and "bank" in the dictionary. They're all in there as nouns, but they're not listed as adjectives. So how do you explain their adjective-like role in phrases like "shoe store," "cotton shirt" and "bank policy"? Easy.

In English, nouns can function as adjectives — a role we call "attributive nouns" or "attributive forms." So any time a dictionary doesn't list a separate adjective form, you can just use the noun as an adjective. But if the noun is two words, as "health care" is in Merriam-Webster, hyphenation rules can kick in. Those rules suggest writers hyphenate two words that together function as a noun, which is why many book editors would hyphenate the adjective form, as in "health-care policy."

In news style, there's no need to worry about the hyphen. Because the noun is one word, so is the adjective: "Healthcare policies and healthcare itself are controversial."

So in book style, you'd probably want to hyphenate the adjective form, as in "health-care policy," while in news style you'd write "healthcare policy."

That's basically what I said on the comments on the dictionary website. Hopefully, I won't live to regret it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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