Onetime vs. One-time

Here’s a sentence with a potentially comical word choice:

“Bob and I shared a deep connection, and as a one-time partner, he will live in my memory forever.”

I know that’s a bad sentence with plenty to object to, but the issue I’m talking about is “one-time” instead of “onetime.” The one-word form, without question, means “former.” But the hyphenated form could mean someone you hooked up with exactly once.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which book publishing uses, allows “one-time” to mean “onetime," but only in a secondary definition. Other dictionaries don’t allow this at all, and according to them you and Bob didn’t have the relationship you think you did.

In editing we always go with the dictionary’s first choice, I would always reserve “one-time” for something that happened just once and use “onetime” for “former.”

You don’t have to do the same. But if you want readers to believe that you and Bob really had something special, you might want to think about it.

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