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I'm at odds with a colleague of mine over the correct spelling of the above title words.

My stance is that they could BOTH possibly be correct. My question specifically is....

Could one spelling be the hard fast correct spelling, hence "the rule" and the other simply the "exeption"? Yet, accepted as possibly an alternate?

My goal here is to find if one or the other holds an ounce of legitimacy more than the other, even if a tad. Thus, the exception/rule thingee.

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What’s your measure of whether something’s legit? An OED entry? Use on the Internet? Use in printed books? –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 1:53
    
Legit in the sense of ....if all the respected authorities combined, who govern over words and their meaning, failed to address this particular word and it's technical particulars, then what would be the next resource tier lower on the hierarchy of the proverbial food chain of authorities on this matter? Is there such a thing? Primary...Secondary.....tertiary?.....if not.......then is there anything that exist to give one or the other more merit, if not technical correctness, as with the lower runged opinion or trend or popularity.? I come short in my findings....... –  Boudreaux May 2 '12 at 2:25
    
let me add....that yes.....everything you mentioned in your reply, if in fact there is no other answer, technically, officially. –  Boudreaux May 2 '12 at 2:27
    
My personal native-speaker instinct is that guardrail is now preferred. The OED2 listed guard-rail with a hyphen. –  tchrist May 2 '12 at 2:28
    
I subscribe to your native-speaker instinct and stand with guardrail. I did happen upon a site that provided the definition of guardrail, using the exact spelling. Afterwards, the author did recognize the word(s) guard-rail as an "alternate" spelling. That was when I had my epiphany, thinking "well if it's an alternate, then it is the exception rather than the rule of guardrail. then my mental busy begins to tear away at that suggesting if it's an alternate, then it's an equal. –  Boudreaux May 2 '12 at 2:36
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3 Answers

Whenever a question like this comes up, consider a quick look at Google NGrams. It tracks usage across a gigantic volume of printed material from the past few centuries, and lets you watch trends in phrases' relative popularity.

In this instance, I see "guard rail" as the dominant phrase until about 1970, when "guardrail" overtook it and hasn't looked back since. "Guard-rail" never even stood a chance.

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We are constantly reminded to be guarded in drawing interpretations from nGrams, which is supposed to be essentially one background reference among many possible, rather than a solid justification by itself. See comments on several posts on ELU. –  Kris May 2 '12 at 4:10
    
I've been informed in posts I've made like these that Ngrams doesn't take hyphens. See books.google.com/ngrams/…. –  zpletan May 2 '12 at 11:53
    
COCA: guard-rail 3 results, guard rail 57, guardrail 202 –  zpletan May 2 '12 at 11:59
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The dictionary is your friend; Merriam-Webster says guardrail.

There isn't even a hint of giving guard rail any legitimacy.

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The dictionary is indeed your friend, and the OED lists guard-rail (http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/82167?rskey=xKHXa7&result=1#eid), but not guardrail. Purely a personal opinion, but speaking as a Linguist, I think the best thing to do with a Webster is to put it in a river to see how long it can float...

Going back to the OP, out of those two options I would go with guardrail. If you listen to the intonation as it is spoken, it is clearly not two words as the 'r' of 'rail' is unstressed.

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+1 for comment on pronunciation. However, the NOAD also makes it guardrail without a hyphen; perhaps this spelling is more American than British? –  zpletan May 2 '12 at 11:56
    
Thanks for the +1, and yes- my gut feeling is that guardrail may be more American, but as I am English I am maybe not the best person to ask! Personally, I would write guard-rail, but only because I was taught that if the two words are still in use individually they should be hyphenated, hence guard-rail and post-office, but email not e-mail. –  Roaring Fish May 8 '12 at 15:49
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