The Grammarphobia Blog

An inner-office memo?

Q: I recently came across a person who uses “inner-office mail” as opposed to “inter-office mail.” When I questioned her usage, she informed me that many colleges use “inner” instead of “inter,” and that both are acceptable. Can you please shed some light?

A: A bit of googling reveals that it’s not uncommon to see such things online as “inner-office mail,” “inner office dating,” and “inner office relationships.” But Google helpfully (and correctly in these cases) suggests: “Did you mean: ‘interoffice.’ ”

Our cursory searching did indeed find quite a few examples of the misuse on academic websites. We won’t embarrass the colleges and universities by mentioning them, but they might consider sending around an interoffice memo on the subject.

“Inter” and “inner” mean different things. “Inter” means between or among. But “inner” (or “intra,” which is the more common prefix) means something quite the contrary: within.

That’s why “interstate” commerce is business conducted between states or across state lines, while “intrastate” (not “inner-state”) commerce is confined to a single state.

In a corporate or academic setting, an “interoffice” memo would be one between or among offices. An “intra-office” memo would be one sent around within the same office.

An “inner-office” memo could refer to one sent around within the same office, but “intra” is generally used in such compounds to mean within.

Besides, the noun phrase “inner office” has a special meaning—the chief or primary office, or one located inside another.

So an “inner-office” memo (if such a phrase were used) might mean one sent from, or within, the boss’s inner office.

One more word, about hyphenation. Most adjectives formed with “inter” and “intra” don’t have hyphens (“intercollegiate,” “intravenous”).

Adjectives formed with “inner” are sometimes hyphenated (“inner-city,” “inner-directed”) and sometimes not (“innerspring,” “innermost”).

When in doubt, check your dictionary.

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