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I've got a document in which I'm defining counterclockwise and mentioning that it is sometimes also called anti-clockwise. The document is in American English, and generally in line with the Chicago Manual of Style. CMoS seems to suggest counterclockwise (no hyphen), but anti-clockwise seems to me to be a predominantly British-English term, and the OED seems to indicate that the hyphen should be present there. Should I hyphenate either or both of counterclockwise and anti-clockwise? Why?

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Just for the record, counterclockwise is also sometimes called widdershins (or withershins). I mention it because I happen to really like this word. –  Kit Z. Fox Jun 14 '11 at 18:02
@Kit: It's always a good day when I learn a new word. :) –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 18:05
@pageman To tighten a screw, turn it deasel; to loosen, turn it widdershins. I can't think of a sentence with "conditions" for either widdershins or counterclockwise. They're adverbs, so nothing immediately jumps to mind. I feel like I'm missing a joke. Is that the case? –  Kit Z. Fox Jun 14 '11 at 18:45
"I can think of some conditions under which I'd use the word widdershins in the same sentence as the word conditions." (but that's clearly cheating) –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 18:50
@pageman Correct usage, but not much of a rhyme to my ears. How about "Turn once widdershins, say 'Lieblings bitteschöns.'" –  Kit Z. Fox Jun 14 '11 at 19:00

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think you will find counterclockwise to be most often unhyphenated and anti-clockwise/anticlockwise to be as often hyphenated as not (and it appears that the unhyphenated version is gaining traction)

EDIT: A little more evidence (note that counter clockwise shows hits for both counter clockwise and counter-clockwise, and the same for anti clockwise) to clear up the issue.


It appears to me that the unhyphenated form "wins" for both words.

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try to use 50 smoothing so you can see the differentiation between the green and the blue :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Jun 14 '11 at 19:24

Very good question. Typically, terms coined as combinations of two words to create a word of a different type, or with an uncommonly-used prefix to the word, are hyphenated. As in my previous sentence, the adverb "uncommonly" and the verb "used" are hyphenated to create a single adjective "uncommonly-used", modifying the noun "prefix". Similarly, novel uses of prefixes like pre-, sub-, anti-, pro-, non-, etc. are hyphenated when the term is first coined. However, if a hyphenated term passes into common use and becomes thought of as its own word and not just a modification of another, it often becomes acceptable to omit the hyphen.

My vote is that both the hyphenated and non-hyphenated spellings are perfectly acceptable. As far as the will of the mob goes, the Google test says that your initial premise is backwards; "anticlockwise", unhyphenated, is far and away the more common spelling of that word (24m results for the unhyphenated word; only 2.9m for hyphenated), while the hyphenated "counter-clockwise" is the more common spelling there, but not by nearly as much (6.5m hyphenated to 4.9m unhyphenated).

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Okay, this is interesting because I got fairly different counts of Google results (quotation marks were used in the searches): "counterclockwise" returned 8.9m; "counter-clockwise" returned 4.1m; "anticlockwise" returned 2.4m; "anti-clockwise" returned 1.6m. –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 17:31
Very interesting. I didn't use quotation marks when I got my numbers, and they're reproducible AFAICT. –  KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 17:36
Without quotes: counterclockwise 4.7m; counter-clockwise 6.0m; anticlockwise 9.9m; anti-clockwise 3.8m. My first guess would be that Google's knowledge of my location (and possibly yours) is causing it to give me (or both of us) location-skewed results. (Also, I get somewhat different numbers running the same searches at google.co.uk.) –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 17:40
Fair point. In any case, there are millions of uses of both terms, both ways; I'd consider that "common" enough to say you can spell either one with or without the hyphen. –  KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 17:49
How were you able to filter your Google search results so that you only had exclusively "anti-clockwise" or "anticlockwise"? The results pages show a mixture of forms on all searches. –  Kosmonaut Jun 14 '11 at 18:26

-thanks to snumpy for pointing out that hypens break NGrams - use spaces instead

so here's counter-clockwise vs. anti-clockwise vs. counterclockwise vs. anticlockwise

counter-clockwise vs. anti-clockwise vs. counterclockwise vs. anticlockwise

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Am I reading that correctly to say that both of the hyphen forms are constantly at 0? –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 18:36
sorry to break it to you, but dashes break nGrams. Any hyphenated word will give you 0 results –  snumpy Jun 14 '11 at 18:37
I think using a space in place of the hyphen will work in Ngram (counting uses of the hyphenated form). –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 18:41
This graph of "anti clockwise" versus "anticlockwise" in 1960-present British English pretty much convinced me that I shouldn't hyphenate "anticlockwise" (I was already pretty convinced not to hyphenate counterclockwise). –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 18:54
@snumpy thanks for the heads up! :) –  Paul Amerigo Pajo Jun 14 '11 at 18:57

Use them as you have found them. It is, as you say, usual to hyphenate anti-clockwise (as it is for the vast majority of words beginning "anti-"; the only counterexample that comes to mind is antimacassar).

It is not usual to hyphenate counterclockwise, and there is no reason why you should. Hyphenation usually occurs where the compound term is not so well established as to be written as a single word, or where to drop the hyphen would make the word cumbersome as a matter of English orthography. "Anti-" falls into the latter category.

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so antivenin, antithesis and antivirus should all be hyphenated? I think you'll find your spell check disagrees with you on at least two of those three. Also, in non-American conversations, the term "anticlockwise" is in such common usage as to be considered its own word and not a hyphenated modification. –  KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 18:36
antiabortion, antialiasing, antiaircraft, antibodies, antilock, Antichrist, antithesis, antisocial, antiterrorist, antitoxin (to name a few) –  snumpy Jun 14 '11 at 18:40
@Snumpy: Most of those are usually hyphenated, at least where I've seen them published. –  Marcin Jun 14 '11 at 22:41
@KeithS: (a) On any fair reading of what I said, I'm clearly not prescribing that "anti" always be followed by a hyphen, just observing that it very commonly is (b) Not only have I only rarely seen "counterclockwise", apparently the OED doesn't think that's normal form either, hence this question. –  Marcin Jun 14 '11 at 22:55
The OED does in fact give the hyphenated forms of both "counter-clockwise" and "anti-clockwise" as the primary spellings, but the CMoS is explicit in listing "counterclockwise" without a hyphen (though it is not explicit about anticlockwise). –  Isaac Jun 14 '11 at 23:57

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