Writing Tips: One Word or Two?

one word or two

Here’s part of a letter I got from my bank last week. Something in it caught my eye immediately: straight away was written as two words. It didn’t look right to me. I’ve always written straightaway as one word. One word or two?

If you’re wondering which is right and which is wrong, this tip is for you. 

There are lots of expressions in English that are sometimes written as one word and sometimes as two. For example: proof/readingper/cent; health/care; for/ever; thank/you; each/other and so on. You might think it doesn’t really matter which spelling you use because it’s clear what these words mean, regardless of how they’re spelled. And for personal updates on social media, you’re probably right.

But in other contexts, where your writing has a specific purpose and your audience has specific expectations, spelling can make a huge difference to whether or not your writing makes the impact you’re hoping for.

So which is correct: straightaway or straight away?

There are three things to think about when you’re deciding between one word or two for phrases like this.

1. Error

In some cases, one of the spellings is incorrect. For example, you’ll find each other in standard dictionaries, but never eachother.

2. Language change

In other cases, regular processes of language change explain why phrases are sometimes written as one word and sometimes as two. For example, website is more common than web site these days, and in time, the latter may disappear as a variant spelling, much as cup board and under wear have done.

3. Varieties of English

One of the ways Australian, British and US English differ is the use of one or two-word spellings for certain expressions. Your best guide is a reliable dictionary – although you do need to know a few things about how to read a dictionary. I’ll show you what I mean as we look at entries for straightaway in three online dictionaries for Australian, British and US English, respectively.

Australian English

To check spelling in Australian English, I use the online Macquarie Dictionary (macquariedictionary.com.au). You can get a free 30-day trial or subscribe for a reasonable rate. Here’s the entry for straightaway.

one word or two

macquariedictionary.com.au

The word being defined in a dictionary entry is called the ‘headword’. Here, straightaway is displayed in large red bold-face type. The headword always shows the most common spelling of a word. Macquarie also tells us:

  • pronunciation (with audio demo)
  • the word type of the headword (‘adverb‘)
  • the meaning of the headword (‘immediately; at once; right away’)
  • less common spelling variations (‘Also, straight away’)
  • other word types (‘-noun Also, straightway’)
    and
  • the use of straightway/straightway as a noun is typical of US English (‘US‘).

So in Australian English, the adverb straightaway is most often written as one word, although straight away is also used.

one word or two

Image source: spookyshobbyshop.com

I didn’t know that straightaway and straightway are used in US English as nouns to refer to a ‘straight segment of a roadway or racecourse’. Did you?

 

British English (aka UK English)

To check spelling in British English, I use the Oxford Language Dictionaries online (oxforddictionaries.com). It’s free but you do get a few ads. Here’s the entry for straightaway.

one word or two

oxforddictionaries.com

Oxford’s online headwords are black and there are other differences in layout compared to Macquarie, but the information we want is still there:

  • In British English, straightaway is usually used as an adverb, most commonly spelled as one word, with straight away as a variant spelling.
  • Straightaway is also used an as adjective and as a noun in US English.
  • The entry includes sample phrases and you can see others by clicking MORE EXAMPLE SENTENCES.

US English (aka North American)

To check spelling in American English, I use the online Collins American Dictionary (collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/american). Like Oxford online, it’s free and there are ads. Here’s the entry for straightaway.

one word or two

collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/american/

Collins reveals that straightaway is mostly used as an adjective in US English, and that it’s also used as a noun or adverb. Straight away doesn’t appear to be a variant spelling in US English.

Back to my bank. They don’t use the most common spelling of straightaway in Australian English, but straight away is a valid alternative. So now I know!

~ ~ ~

Tip Takeaways – One Word or Two?

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE:
~ If most of your readers are in the US, use US English. If your audience is Australian, use Australian English.

BE CONSISTENT:
~ Choose a standard and stick to it.

USE A RELIABLE DICTIONARY:
~ This probably excludes your default spell checker.

SHORT & SWEET:
~ In Australian and British English, straightaway is used most often as an adverb, and is usually written as one word although straight away is also possible.

~ In US English, straightaway is used as an adjective or noun or adverb and is always written as one word.

~ ~ ~

Which spelling standard do you follow for your readers? Are there any other ways you adjust your writing for your specific audience? I’m looking forward to reading your comments.


If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

 The Unexpected Surprise (& other repetitive tautologies)

4 Copywriting Tips to Improve your Testimonials Page

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

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Comments

  1. Interesting. I always took “straightaway” to be an Americanism. Reminds me of their “rightaway”, a contraction of right of way, in which they emphasise the “right”. As opposed to the “way”. I hadn’t seen your tautology post until just then. You mention your acquaintance with a book of them. I would pay actual money for it, and would continue the collection.

    • Hi Nora, thanks for your comment. I’m not familiar with the US English “rightaway” (and neither is my spell checker, it seems!). It’s not in the Collins American English dictionary, so maybe it’s new or part of a non-standard variety of US English. I think you should add it to Urban Dictionary where they welcome slang terms. You even get to enter your own definition. And thanks for the tip on tautologies. I’ll put together a downloadable compilation. Keep your eye on my website!

      • I don’t consider “straightaway” or “rightaway” as slang since they can be used just as well in essay writings, at least in US. This is not unlike the word “proofread” which I don’t think anyone would use it in a two-word way, as in “proof read” anymore. Maybe you could call it “old English,” as in the contrast with “modern English,” but these are such commonly used phrases in US that no one would think otherwise.

        Hence, I don’t consider their usage to be fit for Urban Dictionary, like “website” would be, which are more new words that were made up in the past twenty years or so amid the rise of internet.

  2. Alison hirst says:

    Thank you for clearing that up and for the recommendations/links to online dictionaries. You’re a gem!

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