July 27, 2006

Child-free or Childfree?

It's a big difference to embrace being childfree as opposed to childless. The terminology draws strong feelings for those who sling these words around with some aplomb. I just finished a book which I simply cannot recommend, unless you are planning to enter academia and focus on gender issues and the status of women. The issue of ‘what do women without children call themselves?’ is raised. This particular author decides that “not-mother” is the most accurate term – er, interestingly.

The reading is dry, and heavily footnoted, if enlightening. Curious to me is the discussion about the term “child-free”. Gentle Reader, you may have noticed that I prefer to squish this word all together. That’s on purpose. But, back to the book for a moment, which is called Unwomanly Conduct: The Challenges of Intentional Childlessness, by Carolyn M. Morell (1994). For Morell, the term child-free presumes a negative attitude towards children. She compares it to “caffeine-free” or “smoke-free” environments – as in wanting to be rid of something bad. The word free can have other connotations, of course.

Which brings me to another book by journalist and humorist Lynne Truss called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003). Much more fun to read. Based on what I learned about the fascinating hyphen, I propose that we leave it out in the name of social change, for the following reasons:

  • It is not necessary to avoid an “inelegant word collision, e.g.: “de-ice” and “shell-like”. Childfree squishes together quite well, thank you.

  • Childfree is a relatively new word and therefore not categorized as “traditionally required” as in the case of words such as un-American and anti-fill-in-the-blank.

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1930) says … “wherever reasonable” the hyphen should be omitted.

  • Oxford Dictionary of English (2003) suggests the hyphen is trending the way of the do-do bird.

  • House style be damned!
I’d rather split hairs than split a perfectly good word. So, child-free or childfree? If it really is a child-free environment, then hyphenate by all means, but if you’re describing yourself or a friend, leave it out.

Or, we could simply be Purple.

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twiga92 said...

Well, this book is actually one that I've wanted to read, but didn't want to buy it because it's so expensive (Unwomanly Conduct book). Good to know that I'm not missing much.

Anonymous said...

Twiga - It will be available for loan end of August. Let me know.

ChrisR said...

Teri, I think you're right! And you can't argue with someone who references their point so comprehensively.

I think we are childfree and we'd like to see more child-free public spaces.

Elise said...


I prefer the no-hyphen model. 8^) But, not wanting he hyphens to feel put out, I felt I needed to to employ one in the making of this paragraph.


Anonymous said...

ChrisR - Hey, thanks. Commenters and loyal readers need not agree to post here, but it's always nice! This idea has been floating around in my head since I started this blog; it took me a while to articulate the argument. Needed to read more books!

Dr Band - Childfree it is than, unless you are specifically going on a vacation which is child-free. We really have Lynne Truss to thank for the documentation. She has also written a book called Talk to the Hand; or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (it's about manners in our fast forward modern society).

I bet you'll never look at a hyphen the same way again.

Thank you both for your comments.

Sue Richards said...


In my business a similar arguement rubbles along. I publish the Breast of Canada calendar (www.breastofcanada.com). The show stopping question is, are the models topless or topfree?

I would suggest freedom all the way.

Great to meet you in the flesh and in cyberland.

Sue Richards

Anonymous said...

Sue - I am all for topfreedom and childfreedom, or whatever form you choose! As I learned in the BlogHer forum on Gender & Identity, we all wear many hats, even if people who don't really know us want to put just one label on us (think: Tiger Woods).

Everyone - one more reason to go without the hyphen in childfree: search engines. Yep, in a world run by robots (yes, folks they're here) you get ads for kid stuff with Google-bots if you hyphenate. The bot reads the word "child" separately when trying to match an ad to your content. Interesting, eh?

CarpeWritem said...

Great references and a solid argument on the hyphen vs. no hyphen. I'll have to keep reminding myself to make it one word. Fascinating item about the search engines, too.

Anonymous said...

Carpewritem - Wow. So that's what you look like! Nice photo; looks professional.

Yes, I think perhaps the search engine reason is the most important given our medium here.

Yeah...childfree, that's me, weeeeee!