Fan Fiction vs. Fanfiction

When the dictionary doesn’t reflect the world

[This piece is part of a collection of writing on fans and fandom from the Fansplaining podcast. Follow us on Twitter or Tumblr, and if you’re interested in supporting our work — helping us commission more art and pieces like this — please consider donating to our Patreon.]

A couple weeks ago, I picked a fight with the dictionary.

The Oxford dictionaries also list “fan fiction,” but Merriam-Webster has a better Twitter presence, so I went after them.

This was not a particularly considered fight. I did no research beforehand and had no evidence to back up my side-eye. I just saw that Merriam-Webster listed the word as “fan fiction” and my blood boiled. I would never spell the word that way, with an internal space, and I was sure other fanfiction writers would agree.

It’s just a space, right? Does it actually matter? I got so mad because fanfiction writing as a practice has long been scorned and shunned by the literary establishmentand by the world at large. We pen novels about the most significant characters in our cultural imagination, and when we show them to anyone outside our community, the response is, “Yes, but when are you going to write something real?” When we’re told that the way we spell the word for our own practice is wrong, it’s adding insult to injury.

So feeling that the spelling ought to be “fanfiction” and with a lot of built-up frustration about the way fanfic is dismissed, I tangled with Merriam-Webster. Not being a lexicographer or a linguist, I had no idea what I was getting into—but the Internet was certainly pleased to teach me. Through the resulting conversation, I learned how the dictionary determines what words to include, formed a theory on how “fan fiction” became canonical, and, perhaps most importantly, found out the truth about which spelling is more common in which circumstances.

How the dictionary determines what words to include (and how to spell them)

As you may know, Merriam-Webster is a “descriptive” dictionary, meaning that they examine how language is being used and report on it. Linguists are also usually descriptive. By comparison, editorial style guides are “prescriptive”: they instruct people on how they ought to write, often for consistency across a publication (though they, too, change as language changes). Merriam-Webster’s FAQ says,

Change and variation are as natural in language as they are in other areas of human life and Merriam-Webster reference works must reflect that fact. By relying on citational evidence, we hope to keep our publications grounded in the details of current usage so they can calmly and dispassionately offer information about modern English. That way, our references can speak with authority without being authoritarian.

This is a laudable goal—and it’s one of the reasons I was so surprised to see “fan fiction” listed. In my daily life, I see it written as “fanfiction” at least three-quarters of the time—not as a typo, but as a conscious choice, made by people who are very engaged in the fanfic community. My podcast partner Elizabeth wrote in the first article for this publication, “Every person tweeting ‘The Cursed Child is fan fic’ is immediately voted off the island, because sticking a space between ‘fan’ and ‘fic’ suggests you’ve never actually read any fanfiction.” And in their guide for fellow journalists writing about fanfic, Aja Romano and Gavia Baker-Whitelaw made excising the space between fan and fiction rule #1.

As a preliminary check, I ran a Google search for both “fanfiction” and “fan fiction.” The term “fanfiction” returns 99,600,000 results. The term “fan fiction” returns 13,100,000. This might not be the best way to determine how frequently each spelling is used, but I figured it meant I wasn’t absolutely off base. Similarly, if you plug “fan fiction” and “fanfiction” into Google Trends, this is what you get:

I checked the CSV file to make sure I was reading the graph right, because the difference was truly stark. In the past five years, people searching on Google have used the spelling “fan fiction” about 5% of the time. The other 95% of the time, they’ve used “fanfiction.” Even if you assume that a lot of people are searching for fanfiction.net, that’s still a massive difference.

The dictionary wasn’t having it.

It turns out that Merriam-Webster’s citations don’t come from just anywhere, a fact I might have realized if I’d spent more than ten seconds thinking about it before yelling at them on Twitter. Their corpus — the texts that they search to determine what words mean and how they’re spelled — consists of edited texts, like newspapers, magazine articles and so forth. In other words, even if every single person on Tumblr used the spelling “fanfiction” every day for fifteen years, it wouldn’t make a difference for the dictionary.

And edited texts do, by far, use the spelling “fan fiction.” Google ngrams shows that it’s the most common spelling in books:

In fact, academic writing in general tends to use the space, although not always. Henry Jenkins’s venerable Textual Poachers uses it, for example, and one of Karen Hellekson’s books is entitled Fan Fiction and Fan Cultures in the Age of the Internet. A glance down the contents of the most recent Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures shows open spellings galore. (More on this subject later.) Anne Jamison’s Fic prefers the closed spelling, as does Francesca Coppa’s recently published Fanfiction Reader, but they’re the outliers.

It’s not just books or academic work, either. Ben Zimmer confirmed that the News on the Web (NoW) corpus also showed “fan fiction” 1429 times, and “fanfiction” a comparatively meager 449 times. The NoW corpus includes newspapers and magazines published online, sources like The New York Times or People magazine. It doesn’t include blogs or amateur publications.

As a final check, Gretchen McCulloch suggested I look at GloWbE, the corpus of Global Web-based English (I didn’t name it). It’s a hundred times larger than other corpora like the International Corpus of English, so it’s a pretty good way to determine how people use words online. In the United States, “fanfiction” gets a frequency rating of 319. By comparison, “fan fiction” has a frequency of 298. (To be fair, if you include other countries, their comparative frequencies flip: “fan fiction” gets 660 overall, whereas “fanfiction” is at 619.) In other words, “fan fiction” and “fanfiction” are used about equal amounts across the web.

GloWbE also allows you to look at what sources each spelling is used in. In accordance with the other evidence we found, GloWbE showed that citations for “fan fiction” come from edited sources: The New Yorker, VICE, ABC. Citations for “fanfiction” come from sources like Tumblr, where the fanfiction writing and reading community hang out.

“Fan fiction” and “fanfiction” as variants

So, based on actual data rather than my gut reactions, “fanfiction” is the preferred variant used by many members of the fic community, but it’s far from the only acceptable usage.

That’s 27 “always,” 88 “sometimes” and 322 “never,” if you’re keeping track.

This was borne out when Fansplaining polled Twitter and Tumblr to ask how often people used the spelling “fan fiction.” We received more than 400 responses. (It seems a fair guess that this sample is of engaged and active fans who take part in, and think about, fandom frequently.) Three quarters of our respondents never used the open spelling. Many of them had opinions on the subject, some of them passionate:

On the other hand, our poll showed that over a quarter of respondents sometimes or always used the open spelling, “fan fiction.” Some proposed that older fans were more likely to use the open spelling, an intriguing thought but one we weren’t able to conclusively confirm—though we had observed this tendency in the wild. Many space-users considered themselves outliers from the larger fanfic community for writing “fan fiction,” but some had strong arguments in favor of their preference:

This comment came from stickley925!

Many fans prefer the shorter forms, “fic” or “fanfic,” regardless of how they spell the full word:

This tendency might explain why “fanfiction” isn’t attested more often in GloWbE, despite its overwhelming popularity in our poll: fans who would prefer the “fanfiction” spelling still rarely use it, preferring “fic” or “fanfic.”

The vicious cycle of “fan fiction”

So it’s clear that, while not every fan prefers “fanfiction,” it’s a very widely used spelling. Yet it rarely appears in “officially” published works—academic work, media articles, fiction, and the like. Why? It’s not as though academics, journalists, novelists, and other people writing formally published texts aren’t familiar with “fanfiction” as an acceptable variant spelling. I heard from many of them during my tweetstorm, and many reported that they preferred the closed spelling—but were obliged to use the open spelling anyway. And some of them—fan studies scholars, or aca-fans, in particular—could never be accused of being “fandom outsiders,” as many fans suggest “fan fiction” spellers are.

The issue facing these writers: when they write for an edited publication, they are required to abide by the publication’s house style, and with unknown words, publications often defer to specific dictionaries. Before the word “fan fiction” entered the dictionary, publications spelled it in whatever way seemed appropriate. Perhaps the open spelling was more common in fandom at large at the time—but regardless, we know that it was most frequently used in edited publications when Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary. Once “fan fiction” was in, publications deferred to it. But because they were relying on the dictionary to determine the spelling, they created more instances of “fan fiction” for Merriam-Webster to include in its corpus, even as the “fanfiction” spelling gained primacy in nonprofessional texts online.

In other words, the dictionary says the spelling is “fan fiction” because edited texts use “fan fiction,” but edited texts use “fan fiction” because the dictionary says so. It’s circular.

The long form of “fic” is hardly the only word that’s fallen into this paradoxical trap. The singular “they,” often used for genderqueer or agender people, has been a recent bugbear for dictionary editors and copyeditors alike. While the singular “they” is common in casual English—and historically was perfectly acceptable (see, among other examples, the works of Jane Austen)—it has long been verboten in edited texts. Emily Brewster, an associate editor with Merriam-Webster, admitted that, “really, the only thing standing between its acceptance and the usage that we see is that editors edit it out.” In other words: the reason the singular, gender-neutral “they” wasn’t in the dictionary was because editors refused to permit it — because it wasn’t in the dictionary. (N.B., of course “they” also comes with the added burden of being at the center of a political tug-of-war driven by conservative anxieties about gender-neutral pronouns and people, whereas the proper spelling of “fanfiction” has no political significance.)

Since publications often defer to the dictionary, it’s not surprising that the “fan fiction” cycle continues between Merriam-Webster and general-interest publications. On the other hand, websites like Wattpad and the Archive of Our Own permit and even prefer the closed spelling “fanfiction.” They’re closer to everyday fannish discourse and their constituencies are comprised in whole or in part of fans, so they have reason to break with the dictionary and prefer the spelling most fans use instead.

In an ideal world, fanfic websites and fans’ conversations on social media would count as much for Merriam-Webster’s purposes as other publications. The dictionary aims to describe language as it’s being used, but because fanfiction is a culture that by its very nature doesn’t appear frequently in edited texts, fic writers’ own language is shut out. The way Merriam-Webster selects their corpus makes sure that there will continue to be a gap between the way fans are using language and the way the dictionary describes it.

It’s a long shot that Merriam-Webster would change their rules just for the sake of the fic community. But there is one fan-focused publication that we’re pretty sure is included in the corpus: the Journal for Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC). The open-access academic journal is part of the broad Organization for Transformative Works umbrella (which also houses the Archive of Our Own, amongst other projects). Unlike Wattpad, Ao3, Fanfiction.net, or the OTW’s own blogs, TWC doesn’t accept the closed spelling “fanfiction.” Their style guide says this:

The dictionary used is the most recent edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Authors may consult Merriam-Webster Online. Compound words not in the dictionary appear as two words. Where CMOS and Webster’s differ, Webster’s will take precedence. TWC imposes American spelling to ensure conformity across documents.
 
 Please note the styling, following Webster’s, of the following common terms: Comic-Con, Doctor Who, Dreamwidth, e-mail, fan fic, FanFiction.net, fan fiction, fan sub, fan vid, game play, Internet, LiveJournal, MediaWest*Con, Middle-earth, off-line, online, role-play, screen cap, screen capture, screenshot, story line, video game, voice-over, Webmaster, Web site, YouTube.

As has been established, “fan fiction” is used by a fair number of fans, so it’s not as though TWC is radically wrong. Plus, there are some reasons TWC might prefer an open spelling—for instance, consistency: it’s odd to use “fanfiction” and “fanworks” but “fan art” and “fan films.” But in the same breath, TWC requires writers to use “off-line” but “online” and “screen cap” but “screenshot.” That doesn’t seem very consistent to me.

The real reason that TWC’s choice to forbid “fanfiction” irks me so much is that if publications that are eligible for Merriam-Webster’s corpus don’t take the initiative and permit the closed spelling, it won’t ever gain official acceptance. This isn’t just about the TWC—while journalists writing about fandom are a mixed bag (from the incredibly clueless to, like my podcast partner, the relatively clue-full) it’s rare to find a fan studies scholar, or aca-fan, who isn’t a fan themselves. TWC in particular is an authority on fan culture, and since the Organization for Transformative Works already permits the closed spelling, why not sanction it in the journal as well? Where they lead, others will follow.

So… is it “fanfiction” or “fan fiction”?

The matter is hardly as simple as “the dictionary is wrong, ‘fanfiction’ is right,” despite my initial assumptions. It turns out that a significant minority of fans use the open spelling, “fan fiction,” and there are strong arguments in its favor. So it’s not fair to use it as a shibboleth to determine whether people know about fan culture or not. On the other hand, the majority still use “fanfiction,” and the dictionary doesn’t reflect that.

In an ideal world, Merriam-Webster would change the way their corpus is selected, permitting more citations from fans and fanfiction writers even when they weren’t in formal publications. That seems unlikely, so I’d settle for a solution that Ben Zimmer suggested: Merriam-Webster should include “fanfiction” as the primary spelling of the word (reflecting the way most fans use it) and “fan fiction” as an acceptable secondary spelling. But it’s not clear that such a change will ever happen unless more edited publications begin to permit “fanfiction.” It depends on how closely Merriam-Webster hews to their corpus, even when they know the corpus doesn’t represent everyday written use of words.

When I picked a fight with the dictionary, I had a lot of assumptions about who was right and wrong—it felt like the ultimate outsider v. insider battle. But after this journey, I’m officially off my high horse about “fanfiction” versus “fan fiction.” There’s no mass of clueless writers misrepresenting fandom, and no conspiracy to keep fans down by denying us our own language. There’s just a slightly cumbersome process for getting into, and then updating, the dictionary.

All that said, at Fansplaining we’re going to keep using the closed spelling, the spelling that’s most common in daily fannish life. Maybe Merriam-Webster will decide we’re edited enough to join their corpus, and we’ll serve as one more piece of evidence in favor of “fanfiction.” Hope springs eternal!