Compounds

Q. I noticed that, in your answer to a question regarding the spelling of health care vs. health-care vs. healthcare, you state the following:

For the answers to questions about word definitions and spellings, we recommend that you use a dictionary. (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition, is a favorite of ours.) Since “health care” is now listed as two words in Webster’s, we would follow suit. Webster’s also notes that the compound is “usually hyphenated when used attributively.”

However, I find in my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (my favorite) that healthcare, without the hyphen, is the second spelling for the noun form of the word. Health care and health-care are listed as the spellings for the adjectival form of the word. Who to believe, who to believe?! However, you did resolve a disagreement about the use of hyphens with such prefixes as non-nonverbal, in this case. (I won, by the way). Thanks.

A. Our recommendation is generally to apply only one dictionary as arbiter for a given book or project in order to impose uniform, consistent spelling.

But there is nothing wrong with preferring—as an author especially—one reasonable spelling over another. There is also nothing wrong with preferring one dictionary over another. Chicago recommends Webster’s, but we also like American Heritage and Random House.

Finally, I would bet that instances of “health care” in print in one form or another must have grown exponentially in the last fifty years. And whenever a compound becomes common currency, there’s a chance it will evolve to become one word. American Heritage seems to recognize this.