Q&A: On-site vs Onsite vs On site

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Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, we do a little on-site training…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a quick question for you.
A: Sure thing. That’s why you have a “Q” in front of you, after all.

Q: What? Hey, wow, I never noticed that before. Does it make me look fat?
A: No, you’re good. And that white and gold outfit you’ve got on today is particularly flattering.

Q: It’s blue and black.
A: Ummm. White and gold. Let’s get on with your question shall we?

Q: Yes, good idea – now I got an email from a friend about their new job, and they were describing how they had their own “onsite gym”. What I want to know is whether it should be “onsite” or “on site” or “on-site”?
A: Okay. But first, that’s pretty cool for your friend to have a gym where they work. What kind of work do they do?

Q: She’s a gym instructor.
A: Right. Um. Okay then.

Q: So, on site, on-site or onsite?
A: Good question, and we can eliminate one immediately. While the modern trend sees many words being collapsed into one, “onsite” is not quite there yet. This hasn’t stopped people using it that way though, and even the red squiggly line in Word seems to avoid it.

Q: So not wrong, but not right?
A: It’s less offensive than getting “you’re” wrong in “Your the best English teacher ever” but we’d still say that it’s incorrect to use “onsite” at any time.

Q: Do the dictionaries of the world agree?
A: In a rarity, they seem to. Merriam-Webster (US) does not recognise “onsite” as a word; same goes for the Macquarie Dictionary here in Australia. So it’s either on-site or on site.

Q: How can you tell which one?
A: You’d typically use the hyphen version, “on-site”, when it’s being used as an adjective or adverb before a noun. So your friend should have written, “We have an amazing on-site gym.”

Q: Has the compound ‘on-site’ been around long?
A: Only since the middle of the 20th century – apparently originating from Cold War “on-site inspections” in the military sense. Nowadays, “on-site” can relate to any place.

Q: And what about the two-word version?
A: You’d use it after the noun in a sentence, or when you simply need to separate the two words. So “We have a great gym on site” because we are no longer describing the gym, we are simply locating it. Or “The guard heard that the commander was on site.”

Q: And is it the same for off-site?
A: Want to have a guess?

Q: If English is anything to go by, I’d be betting there’s a silent Q involved and three apostrophes but only two if you use it on a Friday.
A: Haha, well you’ll be pleased then to hear that it’s basically the same thing as on-site/on site. The hyphen version “off-site” is recommended for adjectives and adverbs. However, it’s okay to use “off site” as two words, especially after the noun or pronoun – i.e. “the trophy was kept off site” or “he is off site”.

Q: And “online” or “on-line”?
A: Well this highlights the inconsistency of English. What started out as “on-line” in the ’90s has become accepted as simply “online” today. The hyphen version is still accepted, but it’s used less and less.

Q: So it’s case-by-case then?
A: Well, generally for adjectives and adverbs, unless the first one ends in –ly, hyphenating the words is the way to go as it removes ambiguity. But two separate words are still required for other contexts. (“An off-duty cop stopped the heist” is fine, but it would be “She was investigating while off duty.”) As we’ve seen with “online”, there is a global shift to squish up words and removed pesky hyphens in shorter words. “Online” probably got there quicker because it has been white-hot in its usage for 20 years.

Q: Thanks for clearing that up. We’ve discussed hyphens and adjectives before, haven’t we?
A: Good memory! Yes, we chatted about it here.

Q: Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to enrol in one of your great on-site writing courses, or maybe I’ll do an online
one…

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