A while ago, I wrote a blog on whether to use ‘Web site’ or ‘website’. My conclusion is, that when writing for people and search engines, you have to be mindful of what the world’s using. There’s little point in holding the high ground grammatically if the world’s moved on – especially if people are consistently using a different spelling when searching for your services.

As I’ve come to do some revisions to the Labrow Marketing website, I decided to take a look at another spelling: ‘on line’ and ‘online’.

OK, so here’s the way it should be. If something is on the Internet, then it’s ‘on line’. Two words. Like, for example, ‘in town’. If it’ssomething else that’s on line, then the two words would become a compound adjective, so, for example, an ‘on-line thesis’.

(Compound adjectives are more than useful to avoid ambiguity. Consider a ‘high quality building’ and how it differs in clarity of meaning from a ‘high-quality building’. In the former, it’s a high building that’s of quality; in the latter it’s a building of high quality.)

The same holds true for ‘off line’.

It’s just that there’s one little problem. What if the world is searching for ‘online marketing’ rather than ‘on-line marketing’? You’d be grammatically correct, but commercially disadvantaged.

One way to find out for sure is to check with Google Trends. This useful tool gives you search volumes of words and phrases and even breaks them down by principal geographies. You don’t get exact numbers – but often this isn’t needed.

This tool tell us that there is a massive divide between the use of ‘on line’ and ‘online’ – with ‘online’ trumping the correct form significantly. This gap is even more pronounced when comparing ‘on-line’ and ‘online’.

So what do you do? I think it depends on your mindset. I can certainly understand someone saying ‘wrong is wrong, no matter how many people are doing it’.

The hard fact is, as a copywriter I’m writing for an audience. That audience is measurably showing a different usage. Which means when they’re searching, I’ll be losing out. Or, if I’m writing for my customers, so will they. So, as with ‘Web site’ and ‘website’ I’m now getting in step with the rest of the world. (Yes, I did spot the irony there, ‘in step’ and not ‘instep’.)

English evolves and, where the Internet is concerned, sometimes rapidly. Look how ‘program’ became the spelling of choice for a computer programme, even in British English where it is a misspelling. That evolution is how we get words like ‘today’ – even relatively recent books used the spelling ‘to day’.

Excuse me now, having written this, I’m going offline for a while.

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Kev Woodward

Really useful article Peter, as useful now as when it was written and one that rather resonated with myself, especially since you started with the ‘web site’ and website issue. I was looking for clarification with the ‘on line’ vs ‘online’ issue as a client had challenged my use of ‘on line’. Having read your article, I will now be using online as sometimes, as you quite rightly indicate, you have to swallow pride and follow current fashion. Program with the missing ‘me’ really grates but such is life, as do the other Americanisms such as ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’. Oh well, such is life.