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I've recently been across quite a few British sport(s) websites and Wikipedia articles and kept finding the wording "play off" show up to discuss the battle between two teams after the regular season.

In American English, I tend to think it's quite ingrained to use playoff, and that play-off is a rarer backup.

But seemed that play-off and even play off both come up more regularly in relation to British events... with play off even showing on some major sites (in the header of a Wembley Stadium Article, in a BBC Facebook post).

Google (searched from the US) shows
487,000 results for "NFL playoff" vs 17,100 for "NFL play off" compared to
62,900 for "League one playoff" vs 214,000 for "League one play off"
(The complexities of the plural form seems to further muddle things, as playoffs is a common term in the US, but perhaps not so much in the UK?). Also, Google lumps play-off and play off together under either search, and I can't find a way to overcome this?]

A quintessential comparison of the imbalance seems to be in
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Football_League_playoffs vs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_League_One_play-offs.
Even though it's just Wikipedia, it seems to follow the larger scope?

Looked into dictionaries for more info... M-W indeed found play-off, with playoff only in the unabridged dictionary... and Oxford American redirected to playoff in the American English dictionary... but was surprised to see dictionary.com favors play-off over playoff. Seems US sport league websites and even the AP style guide for the World Series use playoff without discussion. But each just seems to list one form, without mention of regional usage. Is there any site that hammers it down to that?

Alternatively, for "play off", I didn't find anything in any official capacity... and the articles with mention didn't consistently use it as separate words... so I'm thinking it's perhaps fully incorrect (outside of its valid usage as a separate phrase with unrelated meaning)? But with the range of results, and the apparent tendency for it to show up more in the UK, would welcome some further experience from the other side of the pond (or other regions) to confirm that.

[And to make matters worse, the only thread here that really touched on US vs UK hyphenation (When is it appropriate to use a hyphen) had opinion suggesting perhaps the US hyphenates more than the UK?]

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    Many compounds have made the gradual transition from [strong collocation? ...] open form ... hyphenated form ... closed form, and this has usually occurred faster in the States. Compounds where strange spellings (eg headache but stomach ache) or other unwieldiness (distance learning) would result resist solidification. // If alternatives are available in dictionaries, I think branding any of them 'fully incorrect', even 'fully incorrect in Wessex', is going too far.... – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '16 at 13:03
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    Obviously, one has to be careful with certain expressions ('fag', for instance) which would almost always be taken one way in A and another in B. Especially when offence or otherwise dangerous misinterpretation could occur. But with spelling in the grey/gray areas, there is a lot of latitude. Consistency within a document is obviously to be preferred, but insisting that people within a fifty-mile radius of C adopt a certain rule is not. People flying from D to C would have to 'correct' texts they were composing, at a certain point. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '16 at 13:03
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    Wikipedia states that the spelling choice (for compounds in general) is often individual- rather than region-defined: <<Usage in the US and in the UK differs and often depends on the individual choice of the writer rather than on a hard-and-fast rule; therefore, open, hyphenated, and closed forms may be encountered for the same compound noun, such as the triplets container ship/container-ship/containership and particle board/particle-board/particleboard.>> – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 '16 at 13:04
  • @EdwinAshworth, great information and thoughts, really helps understand it better, thanks. – JeopardyTempest Aug 3 '16 at 5:12
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The FA (Football Association) Cup is an annual football (soccer) tournament in the UK. A lot is written about this in UK websites, newspapers, magazines etc, and it's primarily of interest to the UK (not many US newspapers are interested in it, for example) and so I think it's a good way to gauge this question.

Googling "FA Cup playoffs" returns 1.27 million results while "FA Cup play-offs" (which actually includes "play offs" too) returns 63,000 - about 5% as many the other term.

So - "playoffs" is used 20 times more than "play offs" and "play-offs" combined, according to Google.

Next lets look at the BBC, an absolute bastion of correct English, and always a go-to for me.

Unfortunately their search engine doesn't give a number for total results, but when we search "playoff" we get results which are separated by a year or more. They aren't in chronological order, so we can't draw any direct statistical conclusions from this, but when we search "play-off" we see results seperated only by a matter of weeks - which suggests that "play-off" is much more frequently used.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=playoffs&sa_f=search-product&scope=#page=2

http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=play-offs&sa_f=search-product&scope=

So, two conflicting bits of evidence there: google greatly prefers "playoff" and the BBC greatly prefers "play-off".

As I said, I tend to look to the BBC for matters of correctness, since they have whole departments to deal with this sort of thing. So, I'd put my vote in with "play-off", but it's certainly not clear cut.

  • Think your results may be skewed by the plural acceptance (or lack thereof), a complication that got me too when writing the question? I get 1.8 million for "FA Cup playoff" to 5.4 million for "FA Cup play-off". After having those issues, and also wondering about skewing to US-based results by Google (if you're here or use gl=us in the search). Do like your BBC methodology, though, I'm with you well on it. Coincidentally, I don't think we'd often refer to the FA Cup as a playoff, at least in the US. MAYBE in replays. But playoffs are for postseason separation more for us. – JeopardyTempest Aug 2 '16 at 9:56
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    In the UK at least, "playoff/play-off" most commonly refers to the match to decide 3rd place (ie between the two losers from the semi finals), in case that helps. I don't think anyone would mind which variant you use, although I think "playoff" and "play-off" would be preferable to "play off". – Max Williams Aug 2 '16 at 10:03
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    To get a count you could try searching the bbc website using Google: "playoff site:bbc.co.uk" – Chris H Aug 2 '16 at 11:34
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    @MaxWilliams: Interesting, in my experience here in the US a game for 3rd place is called a... 3rd place game. And it's rather rare we have any interest in them (the recent 3rd place game with the US in Copa America garnered barely more than the group match against the same team: worldsoccertalk.com/2016/07/02/…) – JeopardyTempest Aug 3 '16 at 4:46
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    Your example is pretty poor because we don't have play-offs in the FA Cup! Play-offs take place in the Football League. – Rob Sedgwick Jun 8 '18 at 16:10

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