Noise Canceling or Noise-Canceling?

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An advertisement for “Noise Cancelling” headphones prompts this post about how easily the vagaries of spelling and punctuation complicate the simple act of describing something in writing.

Which of the following descriptions is correctly spelled and styled?

a. noise canceling headphones
b. noise-canceling headphones
c. noise cancelling headphones
d. noise-cancelling headphones

An online search will return all these options, but careful writers (of American English) will opt for b, “noise-canceling headphones.” The first option suggests that one is referring to canceling headphones of a noise nature, rather than headphones of the noise-canceling variety, and the third does the same for British English readers, for whom cancelling (and cancelled) is standard spelling. The last choice is correct for British English.

How does one determine from an online search that choice b is correct? Well, for starters, don’t rely on an online search, unless one is consulting a reputable digital dictionary such as Merriam-Webster’s. Though both canceling and cancelling are offered as options on that site’s entry for cancel, note that although the same is true of canceled and cancelled, all the examples for the past-tense form of the verb use the first spelling, and extrapolate from there. (However, note, too, that the noun form is cancellation, not cancelation.)

Why, then, is the phrase spelled cancelling in the ad?

a. Neither the writer nor anyone else involved in editorial production of the ad knows how to spell the word.
b. The word was inadvertently misspelled, and no one involved in editorial production of the ad noticed the error.
c. Despite the prevalent spelling in American English, the company that sells the product chooses to spell the word cancelling, either in generic usage or as part of the actual product name, or both.
d. The company that sells the product is based in a country that uses British English spelling.

In this case, the pertinent answer is d, but that doesn’t change the fact that content in the company’s advertising for the US market should reflect American English preferences.

As for the hyphen, advertisers often omit the punctuation mark, either out of ignorance or in a deliberate effort to avoid what is seen as a cluttering nonessential element. However, hyphenation of the phrasal adjective “noise canceling”/“noise cancelling” before a noun is advised in either variation of the language.

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6 thoughts on “Noise Canceling or Noise-Canceling?”

  1. The answer is, irritatingly:
    a. Neither the writer nor anyone else involved in editorial production of the ad knows how to spell the word.

    This is one of by BIGGEST pet peeve, so I’m glad you address it. The rule in American English is very simple: When stress is on the second syllable, you double the L– controlling, patrolling. When the stress on the first syllable YOU DO NOT: traveling, modeling, CANCELING/CANCELED, The last one is the most often fumbled, for some unknown reason. This is very easy, and why it is not taught like any other general spelling rule like Y/IES I have no explanation but the ignorance of teachers and the fecklessness of the education system in general. (I am not talking about British here, so save it. They throw extra letters in every chance they get. Probably a socialist scheme to subsidize the typesetting trade. Odd, too, since when they speak they drop whole syllables wholesale. Maybe it’s a compensat’ree mechanism. )

  2. “In this case, the pertinent answer is d, but that doesn’t change the fact that content in the company’s advertising for the US market should reflect American English preferences.”
    I am quite happy to read this in print from you.
    To me, it appears that many Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshman, and Irishmen have the notion that everyone should write things their way, and be damned if they don’t.
    They do not see it that Americans outnumber them by a wide margin, and adding in the English-speaking Canadians makes the margin even wider. (The situation is practically like that of the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks!)
    Something that was quite irritating was in the Web site of an Aussie newspaper: “Pearl Harbour”. To me, that is just as bad as “New Yawk City”, “Sidney”, “Londone”, and “Bumminghum”.

  3. I do not understand why the order of these postings was reversed.
    Venqax’s comment was here before I started writing anything.
    (LOL, maybe Venqax is in Newfoundland or Adelaide today, where the time zones are different.)

  4. quoting: “When stress is on the second syllable, you double the L…”
    I do not think that there is anything magical about the “second” syllable, or the first syllable. Consider these words.
    remodeling, premodeling, computer-modeling software, software-modeling, clay-modeling, economic-modeling, minimodeling, micromodeling, pseudomodeling, quasimodeling, hosiery-modeling, runway-modeling, shoe-modeling, weather-modeling and prediction,
    prepatrolling, repatrolling, airpatrolling, footpatrolling, micropatrolling, anticontraband-patrolling, hurricane-patrolling, radar-patrolling, weather-patrolling, timepatrolling,
    air-traffic-controlling, precontrolling, recontrolling, remote-controlling, retrocontrolling, pseudocontrolling,
    precanceling, recanceling, check-canceling, payment-canceling, anticanceling, pseudocanceling,
    boiling, coiling, foiling, growling, hauling, keelhauling, overhauling,
    installing, preinstalling, reinstalling, uninstalling, …

  5. Mark, I had a slightly different take on the meaning of the first example, “a. noise canceling headphones.”

    To me, that sounds as if there’s an entity or person named “noise”, in the process of canceling headphones. Like, “Robert frying eggs.” Subject, verb, object.

    Hyphenated phrases are often a source of confusion and errors, so thanks for this article. Sometimes, I have a problem with three-word phrases. If I’m talking about time management and money management in combination, I might say:

    “..time- and money-management.”

    But this is awkward, with the dangling hyphen on “time.” I guess we could construct it as, “..time/money-management,” inferring that we’re talking about the management of both time and money.

    It would be great if you could write an expanded article on this topic, covering hyphenated phrases in general. Maybe you have done that already- I’ll have to search around.

  6. Doug:
    In your example, because “time (management)” and “money management” are not phrasal adjectives, the hyphens should be omitted. Please do search the site for “phrasal adjectives” to find posts with more information about the topic.

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