Do I copyedit, copy edit, or copy-edit?

Mar 13, 2023 | Word Usage

Aside from the debate over the use of the serial comma, nothing frustrates like the decision to use a space, no space, or a hyphen when combining the words “copy” and “edit.” I wanted to do a deep dive into this dilemma and figure out exactly what I do. Do I copyedit, copy edit, or copy-edit?

Who says what?

A copyeditor’s first response is always to check the house dictionary or style guide. I looked in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) first. It states that a copy editor (space included) is a type of editor “who prepares copy for the typesetter” or “edits and headlines newspaper copy.” Surprisingly, it then notes that the verb form should be copyedit (no space). I, however, consider myself a closer match to the so-called Kids definition of “an employee of a publishing house who corrects manuscript copy.” I wanted confirmation, so I checked my Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) and saw—a copy editor (again with a space) is “a person whose work is editing and correcting the grammar, punctuation, etc. of articles and manuscripts, as in a newspaper office or publishing house.” However, the verb form was now listed as copy-edit. Now, I’m just confused.

Picture of a dictionary page

Who to trust

The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is the preferred source “for general matters of spelling” by The Chicago Manual of Style, which many book publishers and magazines follow in the United States. The Chicago Manual states it “normally opts for” the first spelling listed rather than the variants unless given a preference by the author or publisher. But Webster’s New World College Dictionary is the official dictionary of Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. So, who‘s right?

You can always trust Google

Copyedit or copy edit according to Google Books Ngram Viewer

To help me decide which form of copyeditor and copyedit to use, I decided to look at which form is trending using Google Books Ngram Viewer (one of my favorite tools!). Google Books Ngram Viewer displays a graph showing how specific phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., “American English,” “British English,” “French”) over a period of selected years. This graph shows that in American English, copyediting trumps both copy editing and copy-editing as far as prevalence. In fact, the one-word style shows a sharp increase in the last thirty years.

So, do I copyedit or copy edit?

No matter which side of the argument you stand on, however, you can always turn to Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage. In it, he confirms that “The normal process in modern English is for separate words used habitually to become hyphenated, then fused into a single word (e.g., to day became to-day in the 19th century and then today in the 20th).”

Between Google Ngrams and Garner’s research, I can confidently claim that I am a copyeditor who copyedits…that is until my current house style guide tells me otherwise.

Picture of typewriter and laptop

The important thing to remember is that language evolves over time. At any single point, there may be more than one correct way to spell or use a word, regardless of region or dialect. A credible reference source can say one thing, while another may say the opposite. As with any arguable options, the important thing is to pick a preference and stick with it. Remember, consistency is key when it comes to writing.


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