Both Oxford Online and Merriam-Webster dictionaries show grass roots with a space between the two words in the compound noun.

But this ngram shows substantially more hits for grassroots without a space separating the two nouns since the 1990s.

Which if either spelling is best to use today, and why?

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  • Actually no, because "grass roots" is still the nominal form, which an n-gram is unable to distinguish from an adjectival form "grassroots." – KarlG Dec 28 '17 at 7:58
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    @KarlG Have you seen my ngram? It compares "grass roots are"/ "grassroots are"/ "grass roots have"/ "grassroots have". – JK2 Dec 28 '17 at 8:00
  • Ah, so it can distinguish. Sorry. – KarlG Dec 28 '17 at 8:35
  • It would be reasonable to include further research in a question such as this. Other dictionaries (eg CED) give both spellings. 'Which is the correct noun spelling?' is not well phrased. You can choose which to use at the present time; however, it looks like the closed compound is becoming the favoured choice [Ngram results], so it is probably sensible to join the descriptivist camp now. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 28 '17 at 8:53

Your question is certainly reasonable. I have noticed that dictionaries are somewhat slower than popular usage to pick up on spelling shifts that involve closing up hyphenated words or reducing two-word phrases to single words.

In the case of grassroots versus grass roots, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists grassroots as the preferred form for the adjective (with grassroot as an alternative) and grass roots as the preferred form for the noun. But as recently as the Ninth Collegiate (1983), MW offered no adjective form of the term, suggesting that it considered the normal form of the adjective to be either grass roots or grass-roots. That changed in the Tenth Collegiate (1993), when grassroots debuted as the preferred adjective form.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, tenth edition, revised (2002), meanwhile, echoes the Ninth Collegiate in offering only grass roots as the spelling for the noun form and no spelling for the adjective form.

For its part, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010) lists grassroots as the only standard form for both the noun and the adjective. AHDEL came to this preference rather recently, however: in the fourth edition (2000), it listed grass roots as the noun form and grass-roots as the adjective form.

Clearly we are dealing with a term whose spelling is in flux—with Oxford holding to the traditional two-word or hyphenated spellings for the noun and adjective forms, Merriam-Webster opting for two words for the noun and one word (unhyphenated) for the adjective, and American Heritage endorsing the one-word form for both noun and adjective forms. My money, if I were a betting man, would be on the one-word form to triumph eventually, since the historical movement in spelling seems to favor it; but today we live in unsettled times, and the correct noun spelling of grass roots/grassroots depends on which authority you consult and how impressed you are by it.

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    It may be splitting hairs of angels dancing on pinheads, but Oxford Dictionaries Online is calling this a plural (compound) noun, not an adjective like MW is. I'll need to wait till I get back from Christmas to check whether the real OED follows their custom of labelling such noun senses “attributive” in use. I honestly can’t quite convince myself one way or the other whether regular “is-it-an-adjective?” syntactic tests work here, like for instance deciding how acceptable in meaning and form something like “This movement is even more grassroots than that one is” strikes me. – tchrist Dec 29 '17 at 10:18
  • @tchrist: Your cautionary note is well taken. I imagine that Merriam-Webster was thinking of a simple situation such as "grassroots [or grassroot] movement" when it made its move to one word for the adjective form. But the fact that adjectiveness and nounness tend to merge in settings such as the one you suggest is likely to add impetus to the movement toward rendering grassroots as a single word in all its parts-of-speech incarnations. The OED is unlikely to withstand that momentum much longer, I think. – Sven Yargs Dec 29 '17 at 11:09

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