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On-Premise Vs. On-Premises – The Debate and Resolution

Far more important troubles plague the world. So maybe that’s why, as a perfectly distracting aside, warring factions of the GovLoop content team waged a bitter and caustic grammatical debate today during a normally mundane morning scrum.

The spoils of battle? “On-premise” or “on-premises” as a modifying adjective was to be crowned as official GovLoop style.

Allow me to expound on the image. Five of us here at GovLoop make up the content team – Pearl, Mark, Nicole, John and yours truly. We gather every morning at 9:30 a.m. to hear the manager’s report, share what’s on tap for each of us and indulge in a quote and word of the day.

It was at today’s scrum that the fiery fracas took place, when several kind and mild-mannered writers shed the pleasantries to settle a common-interest lexical quandary.


A few days ago, I had been working on our upcoming cloud guide when I noticed that some of my boss Nicole’s edits were peculiar. She had changed “on-premise” to “on-premises” when it preceded a noun.

As I mused over why ever that could be – we had always used “on-premise” as convention, including Nicole – and proceeded to firmly reject each edit one by one, I was curious. But it was not until days later that the matter organically reemerged, when in yet another piece, Nicole had made the same edit.

Before approaching her, I researched the topic and unearthed an embarrassingly tardy revelation for a professional writer: “Premise” was not the single form of “premises.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines premises as “a tract of land with buildings thereon,” whereas premise is “a proposition anecdotally supposed or proved as a basis of argument or interference.”

In other words, an IT data center is kept on premises, while the philosophers Rousseau and Machiavelli base their arguments around the state of nature as a premise. “Premises,” already a single noun, cannot be replaced by “premise,” and the two are quite different.

John, the head honcho of the content team, a Canadian literature major and a true logophile, had recognized this discrepancy long ago and brought the matter to Nicole. Whenever we say, “on-premise technology,” we do in fact mean “on-premises technology” – something that’s kept in-house, not the foundation for argument.

But therein the lies the problem.

People say “on-premise technology.” People write “on-premise technology.” People know “on-premise technology.”

“On-premise” is a habit in the IT world, so much so that the hallowed Associated Press Stylebook even acknowledges it as legitimate. So were we to bow to convention or fight the good fight to change government IT diction?


That takes us back to this morning, mere hours ago, when Nicole ignited the discussion.

“Oh,” she remembered as the meeting approached its end. “Should we discuss ‘on-premise’ vs. ‘on-premises?’”

Before too long, discord and cacophony reverberated through the virtual room. And amid the noise, with heads clutched in hands and sighs of exasperation in the air, several novel points came to light.

  • The phrase “on-premise systems” is often written. But try saying “on-premises systems” and it’s hard to know where one word ends and the other begins.
  • Other grammatical malapropisms have been normalized over time – don’t even get me started on “hone in on.” (The correct phrase is “home in on;” “hone” means to sharpen and thus makes no sense in this context.)
  • Adding a hyphen lends grammatical leeway, as essentially it turns a standalone word into a modifier.

Following the salvos of grammatical debate, as the smoke cleared and bells tolled for 10 a.m. meetings, the team reached a truce. Its terms are laid bare below.

  • “On-premise” will be used – always hyphenated – directly preceding any noun, as the compound modifier has taken on a meaning of its own.
  • Following the noun or as an independent phrase, “on premises” will be used. As no hyphens are included here, the word “premises” must support itself, true to its meaning of a physical location in the possession of someone or something.
  • For videos or scripts, we will introduce “on premises” first, before deferring to the truncated phrase “on-prem,” which is commonly used as a substitute. Here, we imply no grammatical impropriety, simply favoring the easier-spoken and well-known abbreviation.

These terms, immortalized in this here blog post, will stand for innumerable years to come on GovLoop.com.

The treaty represents a compromise, not an absolute finding of right or wrong, and it will serve as a moral compass for our team in future situations of grammatical conflict. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, than the righteous strokes of this contract can serve as the premise for peace and harmony for many bouts to follow.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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