The Grammarphobia Blog

Compounding interest

Q: I am curious as to why the Rules of Court in New Jersey would hyphenate the word “cross-claim,” but consider “counterclaim” one word. Is it proper to hyphenate either or both words?

A: Hyphenation conventions are rich and varied, and the results for individual compounds can differ from stylebook to stylebook, dictionary to dictionary. It may be that the editors of the Rules of Court favor one dictionary or style manual over another.

In general, most compounds formed with “counter” are written as one word (as in “counterpoint”), while those formed with “cross” are sometimes one word (“crosswalk”), sometimes hyphenated (“cross-country”), and sometimes two words (“cross section”).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has “counterclaim” and “cross-claim.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists only “counterclaim,” which leads me to believe it would prefer that the second term be two words, “cross claim.”

In short, it’s perfectly reasonable that the Rules of Court would show one term as hyphenated and the other not. This may reflect the different ways in which we treat “counter” and “cross” in combination with other words.

The “counter” in “counterclaim,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a prefix from the Latin contra (“against” or “in return”).

It’s defined as meaning “done, directed, or acting against, in opposition to, as a rejoinder or reply to another thing of the same kind already made or in existence.”

But the “cross” in “cross-claim” is a combination word rather than a prefix, according to the OED, and “here cross becomes practically the equivalent of an adjective.”

In some of the compounds with “cross,” the dictionary adds, “the combination is very loose” with “the use of the hyphen being almost optional.”

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