The Grammarphobia Blog

Check out, check-out, checkout?

Q: This is probably too hair-splitting for your blog. BUT! At my local library, one takes out a book by touching “check-out” on a kiosk screen. Something as un-world-shaking as a hyphen is probably dwarfed by concerns like global warming, but for heaven’s sake it’s the library, one of the leaders of literacy. Shouldn’t this read either “checkout” or “check out”?

A: We consider no hair too tiny to split. This is the usual way “check” and “out” come together, according to the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we’ve consulted.

The phrasal verb is “check out,” two words. The noun and adjective are both “checkout,” one word. Nary a hyphen among them.

Although a few of the dictionaries list hyphenated versions of the verb, noun, or adjective as variants, we think the library should alter that screen.

If the verb is intended, then the screen should read “Check Out,”  as if the instruction were short for “Check Out Here.”

If the adjective is intended, the screen should read “Checkout”—as if short for “Checkout Option.”

And if the noun is intended, the screen should also read “Checkout”—as if short for “Book Checkout.”

Over time, as we’ve written before on our blog, hyphens tend to disappear from familiar compounds. This is especially true in the case of nouns and adjectives.

The early 20th-century formations that started out as “teen ager” and “teen age” are good examples. These two-word formations later gained hyphens (“teen-ager,” “teen-age”), but eventually the hyphens disappeared (“teenager,” “teenage”).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, shows that the verb “check out” has almost always been written that way—two words, no hyphen. Similar phrasal verbs include “check off,” “check over,” “check on,” “check up,” and “check up on.”

Since it first appeared in the early 1920s, the verb has had various meanings. Someone can “check out” at a hotel or store, “check out” (inspect or test) a new car, “check out” (investigate) a rumor, “check out” (appraise) a person, “check out” (withdraw) a book, or simply “check out” (die).

The earliest OED examples illustrate the first and last of those meanings, and they’re from the same year: “The singer person is checking out from the first floor suite next week” (Sewell Ford’s 1921 novel Inez and Trilby May) … “In the morning he was dead—he’d checked out in his dreams” (Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1921).

No hyphens there. But used as a noun or an adjective, the compound has sometimes been hyphenated in the past.

The noun “checkout,” which means the act or process of checking out, was a single word (no hyphen) when it first appeared in the 1940s.

This is Oxford’s earliest use: “Advancement to radio operator ‘A’ may be earned by … training that must include checkout on several types of multi-engine airplanes” (Plane Talk magazine, September 1944).

In later decades, hyphens were sometimes inserted, but they eventually fell away. OED citations include both “supermarket check-out” (1955) and “supermarket checkout” (2002).

As for the adjective, it too has occasionally been hyphenated. Oxford’s mid-20th-century examples include both “checkout systems” (1956) and “hotel check-out times” (1958). Nowadays, as we mentioned, standard dictionaries generally give the adjective as a single word, “checkout.”

If you haven’t had enough yet, we wrote a post in 2009 about the checkered history of the word “check,” which comes from Persian and is related to “chess.” Check it out.

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