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Videogame vs. video game
Monday, October 1, 2007   11:15 AM

I just finished slogging through a mediocre misconceived New York Times op-ed on the high-art status of videogames. One sentence in the first paragraph completely derailed me:

I am in a Halo haze, brought on by three days of marathon sessions with Halo 3, the video-game phenomenon of the year.

Is that hyphenation WTF for you?

At first, I didn't get what was going on: I was flabbergasted that the NYT would spell videogame with a hyphen.

Then I realized that they were spelling it video game. Like the AP, the NYT sometimes hyphenates compound modifiers before nouns to avoid potential confusion. This is the video-game phenomenon of the year, not just the year's biggest game phenomenon to make use of video.

For me, that awkward, ugly hyphen is probably the strongest case you can make for using videogame over video game. I'm also put off by sentences that start with Video game — with the space there, I'm expecting a verb after Video; it takes a split second to grasp that the subject of the sentence has changed.

(I prefer boardgame to board game, for the same aesthetic reasons.)

A quick Google search shows that the videogame vs. video game debate has been raging for some time, with the recent publication of the Videogame Style Guide adding considerable fuel to the fire.

Styleguides lend authority and consistency to your writing, but with one crucial caveat: you prettymuch have to follow the entire guide. So it's probably pretty frustrating to see a guide with so much good, necessary videogame style advice advocating a variant, less popular spelling of video game.

I'd imagine that proponents of video game are just as irked by videogame as I was (and still am) by the AP's preference for adviser over the much more common advisor.

The arguments used by the International Game Journalists Association — the group behind the Videogame Style Guide — don't help matters much. In their Videogame Style Guide FAQ, we're asked to accept two falsehoods: first, that exocentric compounds (i.e. "compound words where the meaning is not specified by any of the parts," like butterfly) get pushed together in American English, and second, that video game is an exocentric compound.

The first claim may be a general trend, but it's hardly a rule: Bradshaw of the Future supplies Maple Leaf, still life, and high brow. Off the top of my head, there's also Range Rover, pack rat, and Jucy Lucy [sic!].

As for the second claim... dudes, I'm looking right at it: video is modifying game.

The first article I found about this style choice was so contrary to my grammatico-political beliefs that I considered running it verbatim as an April Fool's Day gag. Sample:

In the introduction, there is a colon followed by a capital letter, for no apparent reason. I looked up the usage of colons in Strunk & White, just in case I was having some kind of memory lapse. I wasn't. It's not correct to use an uppercase letter there.

Much better was the response over at GameSetWatch, where Benj Edwards gives these and other spurious arguments a thorough fisking. There are some contentions, however, that I don't think he manages to refute: for example, the notion that we should follow the AP styleguide habit of writing most video words as runtogethers has a quirky sort of logic to it. Editors love eliminating exceptions, unless those exceptions can themselves be made into a rule.

Moreover, I remain sympathetic to the contention that 45 percent of Joystiq readers prefer videogame. It may be the less popular spelling variant, but it's a variant that emerged from within the gamer community, and it's there that it has most of its support. This styleguide is originating within that community, so while the IGJA might have been well-advised to wait until videogame was more widely accepted among gamers, they have no reason to follow the usage of the masses.

The masses, as readers of a certain age may recall, once referred to all videogame consoles as Nintendos.

(Video-game consoles, NYT?)

Edwards closes with some standard prescriptivist arguments, e.g. "any arbitrary change against the standard introduces unnecessary confusion" and "video games have been called 'video games' since the early 1970s, and there's no good reason to stop that trend."

He also asks — and to be fair, the IGJA kinda invited this question in their FAQ — "What are you trying to prove?"

I'm going to go ahead and say that most people are probably choosing the spelling that looks better, not trying to "prove" anything. My own preference is largely an aesthetic one. However, after reading through all the commentary on this, I think it's also clear that people on both sides can and will see an agenda in the presence or absence of a single space.

The writers behind the Videogame Style Guide no doubt knew the various connotations that people attach to these different spellings, and they probably anticipated many of the arguments against their unlikely choice. Nevertheless, for this styleguide they had to mandate one of the two options. I think they chose the right one, but I believe them when they say that they didn't make this decision lightly.

Labels: , ,

Hi Dan,

1. Nice blog. I'm glad that I found you.

2. Doesn't Blogger do TrackBacks? Anyway, your post inspired me to author a response.

Thanks and take care,

Thanks Tim, your language enthusiasm remains "the tits." I've commented over at your blog, essentially just rehashing.

Trackbacks... long, boring explanation. But my language RSS feed collection is practically an all-seeing eye.

The NYT dictionary of choice is Webster's New World, which shows video game for the noun. Presumably the NYT stylemeisters do not feel a need to supersede that.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at October 3, 2007 11:15 AM  

I take language seriously and I don't appreciate being painted as an "April Fool's Day gag." I stand by my comments, and I don't see why you or anyone would disagree anyway. We really don't have cardgames or boardgames and videogames would be just as silly. It's been spelled "video game" for decades and there's no need to change it.


Sirlin - that April Fool's Day thing was an expression of the apparently extreme divide between our grammatico-political stances. For example, I would rarely if ever go to my copy of the Elements of Style to find out if something is "correct."

Your apparent attitude towards language reflects the mindset of most Americans, and I don't consider that position or the fact that you hold it ridiculous. As with "video game," many (even most) intelligent people agree with you.

However, given everything I've written here (especially the "Manifesto," which you're welcome to read if you care about grammar politics), my pretending to espouse such a view would be patently absurd.

I'm still very confused here. I'm American and America sucks, but neither of those things have much to do with anything here. I can go along with your manifesto, but I don't see what that has to do with this either.

I'm deep within the video game industry. I'm part of many different gaming circles, and I run the Evolution Fighting Game Championships, the biggest fighting game series anywhere in the world except for Japan's Super Battle Opera. I write for Game Developer Magazine and I wrote a book about competitive gaming. I have never seen any gamer in any of my circles ever use "videogame" even one time. It's also inconsistent with "card game" and "board game" as I said before. When I weigh these two possible spellings, I have nothing at all on the one hand, and everything I've ever seen on the other. So...why would we invent a new spelling? I must be missing something. Or is the claim that all the gamers I interact with are not representative and that a huge number of real people actually use "videogame"? If that's the claim, at least I'd know what the debate is, but I don't yet see any reason in favor of that spelling. That book with "videogame" in the title is the subject of many jokes because of it, further demonstrating the silliness of it.

Of course "video-game" would be even more jarring, so at least that's off the table (unless you're a writer for the New York Times).


I was responding to your concern about my earlier "April Fool's Day gag" comment. The point there wasn't your opinion on "video game" but instead the way you talked about grammar in making your case. I've changed the excerpt I used to better reflect the essence of my gripe. (In this case, contra Strunk, many people capitalize the first letter of a full sentence when it appears after a colon. It's AP style, for example.)

But on "video game": the argument that it's the most popular version is a good one, probably the best argument in its favor — but if you're actually claiming that a lot of gamers and gaming magazines don't use "videogame," then I suggest you go to Google, or any gaming website, and search the articles for "videogame." There are millions of results for "videogame" on Google, and thousands on IGN, Gamespot, and Gamespy. The Videogame Style Guide FAQ claims that 45 percent of respondents to a Joystiq poll support "videogame." It's still not the most common spelling, but it's quite common within any metric of "the community" that you want to use.

As my post makes clear, I'm not really persuaded by a lot of IGJA's arguments. My argument is two-fold:

1. This spelling variant is already in common usage.

2. I prefer the way "videogame" looks, especially since it will never acquire an ugly hyphen when modifying another noun. This could happen to "video game" in both AP and NYT style, and while I have very little against "video game," I hate "video-game."

Of course "video-game advantage" has to be hyphenated, just like "first-mover advantage". Are you going to tell us that all instances of "first mover" should become "firstmover" just so people won't use that "awkward, ugly" (but standard) hyphen? That's silly.

That would indeed be a silly thing to think. Obviously I'm not for turning all compound nouns into runtogethers, but videogame already has wide currency and — as the version that avoids the hyphen issue — I think it's aesthetically preferable to video game.

Wired Style put it nicely: "When in Doubt, Close It Up."

I had a debate with my copy editor for a book I am writing precisely on this issue. Very nice that to have found this blog entry. I am indeed going with videogames.

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