The long and short of ‘longstanding’

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Once upon a time, a long time ago, the word “long” met up with the words “standing,” “lived,” “suffering,” “time,” “term,” and other partners, and formed many adjectives and adverbs. “Long” kept a hyphen’s-length from most of its partners, but grew closer and finally merged with just one: “time.”

Yet many people, even today, are trying to keep “long” and “time” apart, insisting on putting a hyphen between them.

Sad!

When two words meet and fall in love to form an adjective or adverb, they often keep a hyphen between them until enough people accept them as a permanent couple and drop the hyphen. The adverb “to-night,” for example, kept its hyphen well into the 1950s, though it looks strange to modern eyes.

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We have not yet reached that point with “long-lived,” “long-suffering,” or “long-term,” all of which rarely appear without their hyphens. “Long-standing,” though is in full transition: Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one preferred by the Associated Press and many news organizations, lists “longstanding” as an alternate spelling. The AP and Garner’s Modern English Usage still prefers “long-standing,” but The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage calls for “longstanding.”

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Even so, many American newspapers that appear to follow AP style use “longstanding” regularly, if a Nexis search is any guide, where “longstanding” far outpaced “long-standing” in the past month.

Then there is the curious case of “long(-)time.” Neither “longtime” nor “long-time” appears in any of the collegiate dictionaries we have until the New College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, originally published in 1969, where it shows up as “long-time.” But a rival dictionary, the Second College Edition of Webster’s New World, first published in 1970, debuts the adjective as “longtime.” No wonder the relationship was so confusing.

This Google ngram shows how “long-time” overtook “longtime” in books about 1890, and soared in popularity until about 1938, when it leveled off until about 2000, when it began to drop. “Longtime,” on the other hand, started climbing about 1960, and blew past “long-time” in the late 1980s.

Today, it’s hard to find “long-time” in any standard American dictionary, even as an alternate spelling. The Oxford English Dictionary lists only the hyphenated version, tracing its first appearance to 1851, so maybe it’s a British thing.

But journalists are headstrong, and a Nexis search turns up only a few occurrences of “longtime” in the past month, versus hundreds for “long-time.”

It only goes to show: You can lead a writer to a dictionary or stylebook, but you can’t make them think about it for long.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.