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“Real time” vs. “Real-time”

I’m a big fan of ProofreadNOW.com, and receive their regular newsletter. It typically includes a column on grammar and how it relates to “AP style”, as well as other proprietary styles for rags like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Geeky stuff for lovers of words.

Yesterday’s newsletter included a short list of terms that can often throw a writer into a roadblock, with their proper punctuation and capitalization falling into a blurry area. Included in this particular list were pairs of similar and often confused terms (disc and disk; follow up and follow-up; Bible and biblical), with a breakdown of their proper usage.

There was a particular pair of terms I thought would fit perfectly into yesterday’s column: “real time” and “real-time”. The proper use of each of those terms has been a source of debate between myself and others a few times over the years. I threw an email to the ProofreadNOW.com editor:

Greetings. Big fan of the regular newsletter.

In this particular batch of tips, I would’ve liked to see a comparative analysis of “real-time” and “real time”. I see the hyphenated version misused constantly, and have developed a bit of a pet peeve over it.

They’re both relatively new terms, so the jury is probably still out. But my argument would be that “real-time” is an adjective, whereas “real time” is a noun. That is, “We receive our real-time news feeds in real time.”

Jace Albao

I just received the following reply:

Thanks for your e-mail, and your kind comment about our Grammar Tip letter.

Regarding real time and real-time, the jury has been in since 1993, when the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate Dictionary came out. (The 11th came out in 2003.) They agree with you!

In the 10th and 11th you can find this for “real time”:

Main Entry: real time
Function: noun
Date: 1953

: the actual time during which something takes place

-real-time adjective


Note the date – 1953 – when the term was first used in the public domain.

Thanks for reading!

Yours truly,

Phil Jamieson

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