Can this “first hand job” teach us some firsthand knowledge, first-hand?

Boingboing.net clued me in to this terrifically horrible typo from The Pratt Tribune in Kansas (in an article about high schoolers, no less!):

This is a typo by some jerk-off, not something to jerk off to.

Obviously, this author doesn’t know how to give good head(line). But it does beg the question:

Is the phrase actually spelled “first-hand” or “firsthand?”

The answer isn’t as clear as I’d have hoped. Merriam-Webster, which you’d think would be a haven for hyphens, says that you spell it “firsthand” regardless of whether it’s an adjective or an adverb.

Yet dictionary.com allows for either spelling, regardless of usage.

Maybe it matters how you use it? This guy over at Inventing Reality Editing Service (whose head honcho/only honcho Rob Bignell claims to have “helped more than 120 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices” all while finding time to write a “literary novel“) says that really, whether it’s an adverb or adjective does matter:

Traditionally, first-hand (with a hyphen) is an adverb, as in: We’d seen first-hand the horrors of living in a war-ravaged country. In this case, first-hand shows how something was seen (which is a verb).

Firsthand (all one word) is an adjective, as in: Thanks to the outdoor navigation course, we had firsthand experience using a compass. In this sentence firsthand shows the kind of experience (which is a noun) that one had.

However, that may be a concept that Rob invented first-hand, because I can’t find another source that corroborates his firsthand story.

The folks at writingexplained.org seem to have the best explanation for all these differences:

Americans prefer firsthand, while the British prefer first-hand. This trend has been in place since the middle of the 20th century, when the Americans switched from first-hand to firsthand… Americans tend to compound things at a faster rate than do British writers.

They even have a couple handy charts to prove it!

AmericanEnglish
Usage Over Time, American English
BritishEnglish
Usage Over Time, British English

Since these guys were committed enough to their answer to include actual, nifty graphs, I’ve decided their answer to how to spell “first-hand” is the definitive one:

You can use either “first-hand” or “firsthand,” depending on how much of an Anglophile you are.

Just be consistent, and use it the same way throughout your writing.

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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