The above image shows part of a letter from my bank. Something in it caught my eye immediately: straight away was written as two words. It didn’t look right to me. My English spelling’s pretty good and I’ve always written straightaway as one word. So, one word or two?
If you’re wondering which is right and which is wrong, this tip is for you.
There are lots of expressions in English that are sometimes written as one word and sometimes as two. For example: proof/reading; per/cent; health/care; for/ever; thank/you; each/other and so on. You might think it doesn’t really matter which spelling you use because it’s clear what these words mean, regardless of how they’re spelled. And for personal updates on social media, you’re probably right.
But in other contexts, where your writing has a specific purpose and your audience has specific expectations, spelling can make a huge difference to whether or not your writing makes the impact you’re hoping for.
So which is correct: straightaway or straight away?
There are three things to think about when you’re deciding between one word or two for phrases like this.
In some cases, one of the spellings is incorrect. For example, you’ll find each other in standard dictionaries, but never eachother.
2. Language change
In other cases, regular processes of language change explain why phrases are sometimes written as one word and sometimes as two. For example, website is more common than web site these days, and in time, the latter may disappear as a variant spelling, much as cup board and under wear have done.
3. Varieties of English
One of the ways Australian, British and US English differ is the use of one or two-word spellings for certain expressions. Your best guide is a reliable dictionary – although you do need to know a few things about how to read a dictionary. I’ll show you what I mean as we look at entries for straightaway in three online dictionaries for Australian, British and US English, respectively.
To check spelling in Australian English, I use the online Macquarie Dictionary (macquariedictionary.com.au). Here’s the entry for straightaway.
The word being defined in a dictionary entry is called the ‘headword’. Here, straightaway is displayed in large red bold-face type. The headword always shows the most common spelling of a word. Macquarie also tells us:
- pronunciation (with audio demo)
- the word type of the headword (‘adverb‘)
- the meaning of the headword (‘immediately; at once; right away’)
- less common spelling variations (‘Also, straight away’)
- other word types (‘-noun Also, straightway’)
- the use of straightway/straightway as a noun is typical of US English (‘US‘).
So in Australian English, the adverb straightaway is most often written as one word, although straight away is also used.
I didn’t know that straightaway and straightway are used in US English as nouns to refer to a ‘straight segment of a roadway or racecourse’. Did you?
British English (aka UK English)
To check spelling in British English, I use the Oxford English Dictionary online (oed.com). Here’s the entry for straightaway.
Oxford’s online headwords are black and there are other differences in layout compared to Macquarie, but the information we want is still there:
- In British English, straightaway is usually used as an adverb, most commonly spelled as one word, with straight away as a variant spelling.
- Straightaway is also used an as adjective and as a noun in US English.
- The entry includes sample phrases and you can see others by clicking MORE EXAMPLE SENTENCES.
US English (aka North American)
To check spelling in American English, I use the online Collins American Dictionary (collinsdictionary.com) and click the tab for American. Here’s the entry for straightaway.
Collins reveals that straightaway is mostly used as an adjective in US English, and that it’s also used as a noun or adverb. Straight away doesn’t appear to be a variant spelling in US English.
Back to the letter from my bank. They don’t use the most common spelling of straightaway in Australian English, but straight away is a valid alternative. So now I know!
I’d love to hear from you if I can help with any other language questions: 0427 300 462 or firstname.lastname@example.org
At Edit Proofread Write, I help small business owners, professionals and academics use the right language to achieve your goals.