What is correct in English, non-existing or nonexisting?

Searching sources on Google doesn't help much as both variants are widely present there.

Onelook Dictionary Search doesn't show much about either option: nonexisting is in Wordnik, which references a Wiktionary entry that defines the word as "nonexistent", and non-existing is also in Wordnik, but with no definition, just examples taken from the web (e.g. comments from beneath online news articles).

Oxford Dictionaries has an entry for "non-existing", defined as "non-existent".

But "nonexisting" and "non-existing" are both absent from some other major online dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary.

  • Neither. Non-existant. Apr 29 '18 at 17:53
  • 3
    @RobbieGoodwin: it's actually spelled "nonexistent"
    – herisson
    Apr 29 '18 at 17:55
  • @simPod I believe the assumption is that you didn't use a dictionary to determine what were words and what weren't. Most likely, if you had, you wouldn't have asked the question. By the way, I upvoted because I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and not arbitrarily downvoting without constructive criticism. Apr 29 '18 at 18:42
  • @sumelic sure, go on! Thanks for feedback btw and to Jason too
    – simPod
    Apr 29 '18 at 18:57
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Short answer: neither. The word you want is nonexistent.

Longer answer: You can actually add a "non" prefix to any word to make up something new, even if it's not in the dictionary. (If you do so, common style says to use a hyphen.)

After having eaten an endless supply of apples, she was pleased to finally be handed a "non-apple".

You might do this because you think that non-apple has a better metre here than something that wasn't an apple.

Typically, when you do this, a common style to indicate you're using it (while acknowledging it's unusual), is to put it in quotes. These are also called "scare quotes"—or, in the real world, "air quotes."

Depending on your dictionary source, "non-existing" is not a word, and, in general, nonexistent would be used instead of it. (Although, if you primarily follow Oxford this is not a concern.)

However, for the sake of argument, let's say that it doesn't exist in any dictionary. Or that the hyphenated version doesn't exist anywhere. There could still be a circumstance in which you want to use the hyphenated version.

"He has no quality of life; he's just existing".

"If you ask me, I'd call it 'non-existing' . . ."

In that exchange, the use of nonexistant is inappropriate because it doesn't express the same sentiment. Nor do nonexisting or not existing have the same meaning. So, for stylistic reasons, the made up word is used.

But I wouldn't call it correct to use a nonexistent word outside of a context such as this, or without signalling (as by using quotes) your acknowledgement of its otherwise incorrectness.

Edit: When I originally wrote this, I had made the mistake of only looking at existing comments and checking Merriam-Webster. I have since updated the answer, given the fact that it the word does exist in Oxford and some other sources.

  • @sumelic You are correct. I made the unfortunate error of not checking all common dictionaries before I typed that. Thank you for pointing that out. (I have updated my answer.) Apr 29 '18 at 19:12
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    Thanks for the edit, but I still don't quite agree with that sentence. Dictionaries provide information about words; they don't generally provide information about whether or not something is a word. Even the biggest dictionary doesn't contain an entry for every word, so the absence of a dictionary entry is never a definite sign that something is not a word. (I would say it counts as evidence that something is not a word, but it's not conclusive evidence.)
    – herisson
    Apr 29 '18 at 19:14
  • 1
    There's some more discussion of this topic in the answers to the following questions: Can one ever say for certain a word does not exist?, what does the phrase “a real word” mean?
    – herisson
    Apr 29 '18 at 19:19
  • @sumelic Quite so. Apr 29 '18 at 19:24

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