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The term in(-)situ visualization denotes a visualization or graphics that is depicted in place, for instance, a sparkline that is embedded into text.

As the dictionaries tell, the adjective or adverb in situ is written as two words. But for concatenated terms in scientific language, oftentimes, in-situ (with a hyphen) is placed in front of the main noun. Searching for the term in Google and Google Scholar, I find both alternatives about equally frequent. Also, the COCA Corpus lists both versions for related terms such as in(-)situ burning.

What is the correct spelling of in(-)situ visualization? Is there a specific rule that applies?

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No hyphen needed. It is a foreign phrase (?'borrowed phrase') with a specific meaning. The same form of the phrase can be used for all purposes. Use of the hyphen is a scholarly hypercorrection, I believe. – Kris Jul 1 '13 at 12:44
up vote 2 down vote accepted

No hyphen needed.

In situ (adverb & adjective) is a Latin phrase (?'borrowed phrase') with a specific meaning. The same form of the phrase can be used for all purposes.

Use of the hyphen is a scholarly hypercorrection, I believe.

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Why "scholarly"? Wouldn't scholars be less likely to indulge in hypercorrection than the unschooled? The practice is by definition associated with thinking one knows more than one actually does. – dodgethesteamroller Jul 9 '13 at 4:22

This is the type of question that can easily be answered by referring to a dictionary. Dictionaries are much better than search engines for this type of question. Search engines only tell you what is there, i.e. what others have used - be it right or wrong. Dictionaries tell you what is right.

Chambers and ODO (Oxford) both give "in situ" (two words) for use as adjectives or adverbs, in British usage. American usage may differ - use an American dictionary if that is what you require.

[Following added after Question was modified]

Personally, I see no problem with hyphenating in-situ when used as an adjective or adverb, and indeed, it may be considered as making it clearer. It is not unusual to hyphenate compound adjectives: whether or not to is more a matter of style, clarity, and common usage. It is not really a matter of which is right or wrong.

But, "in situ" is two words and I think it may be considered incorrect to write it as one un-hyphenated word. I certainly wouldn't do so.

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This is true, the dictionaries list in situ (without a hyphen) as an adjective/adverb, also the American ones. But still, as Google Scholar and the COCA corpus confirm, it is frequently used with a hyphen in front of nouns for established terms in scientific language. So, why? Is there any rule that applies or is it just an error? I did not find the answer in the dictionary. – fbeck Jul 1 '13 at 10:55
I extended the question with respect to what dictionaries tell. – fbeck Jul 1 '13 at 11:07
And I've extended the answer! – TrevorD Jul 1 '13 at 11:54

The key here is not whether or not in situ is properly spelled as two words (it is) nor what its part of speech is (it can be an adjective or adverb). The question is whether it should be hyphenated when used as an adjective directly before a noun. You're not finding an explanation in the dictionary simply because it's a matter more appropriate to a style or usage handbook.

Hyphens in compound adjectives, up until the latter part of the twentieth century, were considered mandatory. Modern usage, however, is to use them only to clarify meaning. Sometimes the need for such clarification is quite subtle:

  • Wikipedia gives an excellent example of "white-hot metal" vs. "white hot metal." In the former, "white-hot" is a particular state of the heating of the metal; it describes metal heated to the point where it turns white. In the latter, "white" and "hot" are given equal weight when describing the metal; it is white, and it is hot, but the former word is not semantically modifying the latter.

  • Homer's Odyssey contains a noun phrase famously translated as "wine-dark seas." Here the hyphen is necessary because "wine" alone cannot be an adjective, but in combination with "seas" alone it could conceivably be taken as a noun phrase with a different meaning: "wine seas" could be a slightly strange way to refer to "vast quantities of wine." But this is not what the poet and the translator meant: rather, "wine-dark" is an adjective invented especially for the situation, a compound meaning "as dark as wine." (I was taught in grade school to interpret such expressions as answering questions from the inside out: What is being described? Seas. What kind of seas where they? Dark seas. What kind of dark seas? Wine-dark seas, as dark as wine.)

Thus "in situ visualization" is unambiguous because "in situ" cannot be mistaken for two separate adjectives; there is no such thing as "situ visualization." It's fine to put the hyphen in, but it may be perceived as old-fashioned by some copyeditors.

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Except that "in situ" is not a compound adjective, but rather a Latin prepositional phrase being used as an adjective, just like "in vitro" and "in utero," which I have also never, for the life of me, seen hyphenated. – Branimir Ćaćić Jul 2 '13 at 2:10
@BranimirĆaćić According to the definition of "compound adjective" given on Wikipedia, it's both. And Google will show you plenty of examples of "in-vitro" and "in-utero" before nouns. – dodgethesteamroller Jul 2 '13 at 15:08
"Thus 'in situ visualization' is unambiguous because 'in situ' cannot be mistaken for two separate adjectives; there is no such thing as 'situ visualization.'" It is unambiguous if the reader is familiar with the relatively uncommon term in situ. If not, "situ visualization" may seem to be the more appropriate reading in many contexts, which would send the reader on a wild goose chase for a definition that doesn't exist. I would use the hyphen. – phenry Jul 2 '13 at 16:28
@phenry Very good point, and one that people who advocate for no hyphen, in the modern style, would do well to consider! – dodgethesteamroller Jul 2 '13 at 17:48
@phenry It has been the custom to italicize foreign words: "in situ visualization" -- that too helps recognize the phrase as a unit. – Kris Jul 3 '13 at 5:06

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