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I am still seeing uses of on-line, though I think it is incorrect. For example:

A web browser enables a user to go on-line/online.

Can you tell me which is the more appropriate to use, on-line or online?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

According to this Google Ngram, online is used more often:

The use has shifted over time to omit the hyphen. For example in 1950, the OED writes:

1950 W. W. Stifler High-speed Computing Devices (Engin. Res. Associates) ii. 7 In on-line operation the input is communicated directly‥to the data-reduction device.

This was still the case in the 1970s:

1971 Computers & Humanities 5 192 The shoebox is an automatic text-processing and retrieval system implemented for on-line operation on an ibm 360/50 computer.

However, now the hyphen has dropped out, so the usage is as follows:

1998 T. Sheldon Encycl. Networking (new ed.) 990 In online transaction processing, transactions are executed immediately, as opposed to batch processing.

So, the current usage favors online instead of on-line.

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1  
NGrams does not handle hyphens well, and frequently their inclusion will cause unpredictable results. –  KitFox Sep 16 '11 at 12:28
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It is just a rough sketch, but it doesn't stand alone. Along with the other info simchona provides (as well as my personal observations), the graph seems credible enough. –  Daniel Sep 16 '11 at 13:47
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@kit-- dr65 told me how to get ngrams to recognize at least some hyphens by putting a space on either side –  simchona Sep 16 '11 at 14:04

Both are acceptable; usage depends upon the audience you're writing for, and then your personal writing style/personal taste, in that order.

There are many words in English which can be hyphenated according to personal preference, and often hyphenation provides greater clarity over non-hyphenation. Generally, in formal, professional writing, the decision to hyphenate or not will be made by the editorial staff for which one is writing. At the academic level, however, this decision will be made either by the professor, or -- if not -- devolve to the author him/herself.

However, as simchona's N-Gram indicates, "online" is currently gaining preference over "on-line". For my part, I tend to use one or the other, depending on context and rhetorical aim. For instance, I tend to hyphenate when the word is used as a predicate complement ("I am on-line", "I need to get on-line"), and use the non-hyphenated version when it's just a straight adjective ("It's an online game", "Online accounts are down, right now"). But these aren't hard and fast, even for me; if I'm writing for younger audiences, I will tend to just go with "online", because that seems to be how things are trending with their age group.

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