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TWTS: "Ahold" really has a hold on some of us

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If you have “ahold” of something, some people wonder if “ahold” is one word or two words. Other people ask if it’s a word at all.

One thing is certain. Not everyone is a fan of “ahold.” Such is the case with a listener who sent us this question:

“I often cringe at the word 'ahold,' especially in writing, though it seems to be in general usage. What's the background and thinking on this?”

In English, there are cases where the article “a” precedes the noun form of “hold.” For example, “I put a hold on that library book.” You can also find the “hold” without the article: “I haven’t been able to get hold of him.”

That’s been the case historically, but expressions like “get ahold of,” are increasingly common and show up in many standard dictionaries. Some dictionaries label them “chiefly U.S.,” while others don’t include a usage label. This indicates that both “get hold of” and “get ahold of” are standard or becoming standard.

Regardless of which one you prefer, “get hold of” and “get ahold of” both have two meanings. One is “to have possession of,” as in, “I got (a)hold of some concert tickets.” The other is “to communicate with,” as in “I’ve been trying to get (a)hold of my lawyer.”

Commentators have noted that “ahold of” is largely an American idiom, and it does seem to have gained respectability over the last 100 years or so.

The fact that we’ve chosen to spell “ahold” as one word instead of two is likely making some of you cringe. We’re pretty sure the odds are in our favor though when it comes to which version will win in the end.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.