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A Word, Please: Dictionaries are not all the same

March 23, 2012|By June Casagrande

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."

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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.

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