Should the phrase "we studied it both on- and off-site" have both hyphens? Or would "we studied it both onsite and offsite" be better?

  • As it happens, Google Books doesn't index punctuation marks, so a search for both on and off site matches all permutations. Obviously both your versions are used, but my impression from a cursory scan of the first few pages is that on- is hyphenated more often than not. On the other hand, I think it adds nothing to legibility, and it makes the text look unduly "fussy", so I probably wouldn't include that first hyphen myself (I don't much care what "style guides" say about such things). May 27, 2015 at 20:53
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    @Fumble - For what it's worth, I would probably include the hyphen, to alert the reader that the word (in this case, on) is not a standalone preposition, but part of a hyphenated term to be completed further on in the sentence.
    – J.R.
    May 27, 2015 at 21:15
  • @J.R.: Each to their own, I guess. I just think it's obvious what's going on when you see the short sequence both X and followed by a hyphenated term. Also I just think it's easier to "suspend" my interpretation momentarily for a trivial little word like on (which is almost immediately resolved by off-). With the more unusual fragment on-, my "internal parser" stutters a bit because I'm already wondering what's going on before I get to the resolution. May 28, 2015 at 0:26

3 Answers 3


I would write the sentence without either hyphen and keeping the space between the words:

We studied it both on and off site.

There is no need to hyphenate when the phrase is used plainly and not as a modifier. Compare your sentence with the following:

We conducted both on- and off-site studies.

In the last sentence, "on-site" (implied) and "off-site" are used as modifiers of "study". If you would like another example consider the following:

I go off duty in two hours.

An off-duty cop foiled a robbery today.

  • On purely stylistic grounds I don't like the initial "orphaned hyphen", and ditching the other one as well is perfectly valid, as you say. I'd go so far as to say I prefer the two word form except for the "leading adjective" contexts you present. Obviously not all "writers" in Google Books agree, but maybe that's because they're into business, science, etc. (not the art of fine writing! :) May 28, 2015 at 0:40
  • I think as a general rule, many people overhyphenate. I am willing to let it go as a matter of style, but I definitely have an opinion as to which style is better. There are a some cases where phrases that are not modifiers must be hyphenated -- e.g., contractions like will-o'-the-wisp, headless nouns like five-and-dime, and numbers like twenty-two -- but unless there is a good reason to hyphenate, I choose not to. May 28, 2015 at 0:51
  • My very thinking. Sure, will-o'-the-wisp ain't never gonna survive without its hyphenation (and I quite like the quaintness of the apostrophe, though I wouldn't defend it as strongly as the one in, say, seven o'clock). Many of the "potentially-hyphenated" terms we get asked about here are really just intermediate forms on their way to becoming single words anyway. But I'm not sure that'll fully happen with onsite - when I compare it to onboard, aboard, shipboard, for example, site just doesn't seem to fit the construction so well (there's no offboard, I think! :). May 28, 2015 at 1:12

In this particular context, on-site and off-site need to be hyphenated.
Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/on-site

The word off is not a prefix as it can stand alone as a word. This is the reason, there could exist other versions depending on the context. For example: "He went off duty" but "He made an off-record confession".

That said, there may be other contexts or constructions, where a hyphen may not be required, as per the comments from the language enthusiasts here.

(As the language evolves and when more and more users (more importantly writers) begin to use what was once considered inappropriate, it becomes 'the norm' and dictionaries are updated quickly. As some of our community members pointed out here: e-mail = email, on-line = online. All one can do is to change with the changing times.)

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    According to that one reference you've provided, it can be spelled with a hyphen. However, language evolves – just think of words like on-line (now often spelled online). I can find a couple dictionaries that already spell offsite sans the hyphen: Wordnik and businessdictionary.com.
    – J.R.
    May 27, 2015 at 21:13
  • It's quite true that English, of all the languages, evolves rapidly thanks to its widespread usage around the globe. Top dictionaries such as Collins, Oxford, American English, Merriam-Webster's, Cambridge, etc. have these two terms hyphenated.
    – Sankarane
    May 27, 2015 at 21:59
  • The full OED has two subdefinitions for off-site. The first one is the adjectival usage before a noun usage (off-site disposal), which by standard rules of English has to be either a hyphenated form, or a single word (which isn't all that common with onsite, offsite yet). The second OED subdefinition is for the adverbial usage (as per OP's here), for which they give three citations - one each for the single-word, hyphenated, and two-word forms. I'd call that a draw. (Or Full OED tops Collins, Oxford, American English, Merriam-Webster's, Cambridge, etc :) May 28, 2015 at 0:58
  • @Sankarane - You've said more to me in your comment than you did to the O.P. in your answer. Perhaps you ought to elaborate in your answer some, instead of having merely one terse, authoritative-sounding sentence backed up with one dictionary URL.
    – J.R.
    May 28, 2015 at 11:16

Ngram doesn't treat hyphenated compound words as hyphenated words; instead, it treats them as two words separated by a letter space. So instances of "off-site" in a Google Books search show up in Ngram charts as examples of "off site."

Even so, this Ngram chart of off site (red line) versus offsite (blue line) indicates that, for the population of books in the Google Books database that have been published each year since 1963, instances of offsite have been more frequent than instances of off site and off-site combined:

Though I'm by no means certain that the Ngram algorithm captures all (or even most) instances of off-site, the data indicating a substantial rise in the frequency of offsite between 1940 and 2000 seems strong. And as the frequency of instances of offsite grows, the case for including offsite as a legitimate alternative to off-site and off site gets stronger. (Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary [2003] does not mention the spelling offsite in its entry for off-site, even as a variant.)

The Ngram results for on site (red line) and onsite (blue line) over the same period are quite different:

The two Ngram charts suggest that offsite has made considerably more headway against off-site than onsite has against on-site. At the very least, the Ngram results might justify adding a third alternative to the poster's two original options of "We studied it both on- and off-site" and "We studied it both onsite and offsite"—namely,

We studied it both on- and offsite.

Just as online began as on line, shifted over time to on-line, and eventually became fused as online, I expect that onsite and offsite will eventually become the dominant spellings of those two terms. Nevertheless, the Ngram charts above indicate that, although offsite may be well on its way to dominant status, onsite still has a serious deficit in popularity to overcome.

For what it's worth, the Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition (2003), approves of hyphenating the first (truncated) term of a pair such as "on- and offsite" above:

7.89 Hyphen with word space. When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained followed by a word space.

[Relevant example:] fifteen and twenty-year mortgages

Omission of the second part of a solid compound follows the same pattern.

[Relevant example:] both over- and underfed cats

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