Online vs. on-line

Although a few stodgy editors and style guides still recommend the 1990s-style on-line (with a hyphen) for the computing-related adjective, the trajectory of the language favors online. The latter is now considered acceptable by most dictionaries and English usage guides, and most major publications have changed with the times. Perhaps more important, online is far more common in popular usage.

Of course, on line is two words when it functions as an adjective phrase with on modifying the noun line (e.g., we are on line at the store).


Most major publications have dropped the hyphen from online—for example:

Online or off, a ferocious will and a forced optimism are required to remain in the game. [NY Times]

Answer: when it’s an online-only TV show. [Telegraph]

Hughes owns one satellite and is slated to launch another one next year which will allow it to provide faster online services. [Wall Street Journal]

But it’s still possible to find examples of the hyphenated on-line:

“A Dying Wish” was published on-line by Forbes magazine the day she died. [Boston Globe]

New on-line tool shows where to go for help with health insurance [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

But such examples are becoming more infrequent, and even the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch already use online most of the time.

13 thoughts on “Online vs. on-line”

  1. “Online” serves properly as an adjective, as in “online discussion.” “On line” indicates where you are, as in “I was on line for about four hours today.” There are many common English terms that follow this “rule.” The most abused that I can think of is the use of “everyday” (an adjective) when the writer means “every day” (how frequently something occurs).

    What I think the Grammarist is attempting to indicate is that if we think of writing choices in terms of common practice, “online” is frequently used to indicate where you are or have been working, as well as serving as an adjective. However, this laissez-faire linguistic philosophy is quite distinct from understanding the semantic and/or part-of-speech distinctions between “online” and “on line.”

    • Thank you. We agree completely, and it was not our intention to say that “online” should always replace the two-word “on line,” so we have updated the post with a note about where the two-word “on line” makes sense. Our main point was that the adjective that was once spelled with a hyphen is now usually unhyphenated, but you’re right that “on line” being a useful two-word phrase is worth nothing.

      We take a laissez-faire approach with some things (e.g., in the belief that words can change meaning), but we believe in keeping compounds separate from their corresponding two-word phrases, and we have many posts about such pairs. For example, here’s our post on “everyday” and “every day”:

  2. Have to go with the flow, I guess. Logically, to me anyway, it seems that “on line” should be used to describe the state of being offered on the internet (e.g. “I am on line.” or “Buy it on line.”) and the single word online should be used as an adjective (e.g. “It’s an online offer.”). It may be a regional quirk, but in the example you provided about being “on line” at a store would be phrased as being “in line” here in the Midwest. (e.g. “I’m in line at the checkout right now.”) Thanks for the enlightenment. First time I’ve seen the site. I’ll definitelyvisit again.

      • Hmmm.. I’d tend to agree with MGL on this one. I tend to use “online” as an adjective only. Otherwise, I’d write “on-line” and again – this could just be giving away my age ;)
        Also, an idea of a store location is ineluctably associated with a lineup. Putting “on line” together with a “store” can mean only one thing. I must say, though, I’d always be standin’ IN line mysefl…


        • We would like to distance ourselves personally from the “waiting on line” thing, since people have strong feelings about it. We (the people who write this site) say “I am waiting in line at the store,” but we are aware that there are parts of the US (the NYC area, for one) where “I am waiting on line at the store” is commonly heard.

          We’ve been meaning to write a post about this. We’ll probably do it soon.

          • On another board, a contributor explained the NYC origin of “on line” (in a queue) as resulting from immigrants at Ellis Island having to stand literally on a line while waiting to reach a customs official. Dunno, but it is at least a kind explanation for the term. I’m from the South and have lived and traveled over almost the entire country (as a singer based out of New York City). I never heard “on line” used except in Noo Yawk and environs, and I admit that I’m surprised as I write this by the extent of my dislike of the term. I am saddened by its usage – and acceptance – by the talking heads of the media; but then, that is a group not noted for its collective intelligence.quotient. John Simon of the NY Times once wrote: “It has been said that language changes through usage. Not so: Language changes through ignorance.” I really want to agree with him; but if one follows that argument to its logical extreme, perhaps we’d still be speaking with grunts and snorts….Ah, well – the older I get, the more out of touch I seem to be. Time for scotch.

  3. When speaking of resources available on the Web (as opposed to the status of computer hardware, telecommunications lines, or transportation) “online” has been used for many years. If it is accepted by the OED, that is what I am using. (The OED entry may seem ambiguous on the topic, but they call the Web version “OED Online” not on-line.)

  4. Would the usage of off-line or offline normally follow suit with the usage of on-line or online? I was slow to drop the hyphen from online, but during an annual review of user guides I had written, I discovered examples in which offline and on-line appeared in the same paragraph. For some reason, offline seemed perfectly normal to me then (and now) but online still feels like a hyphenated word missing its hyphen… (And, yes, I still have not dropped the hyphen in e-mail, though it seems inevitable.)

    • Would you also “inevitably” drop the hyphen in T-bone, H-bomb, X-ray, T-shirt and U-turn? The ‘e’ represents electronic, as we also see it used in e-commerce, e-learning and e-business. Dropping the hyphen has several consequences, one being that we should then drop it consequently in all uses. This poses a problem with words like e-economy and e-environment, which would then look like this: eeconomy, eenvironment. Obviously not good. And how about the H-Bomb, should it then be hBomb, Hbomb or h-bomb?

  5. When referring to making a purchase at physical stores, do we write “I bought that offline.” or “I bought that off-line.” ?


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