It was one of those more-heat-than-light online exchanges, lengthy, marked with posturing, dogmatic statements, and topic drift, and it turned on the spelling rowhouse.
Now the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.com, and the American Heritage Dictionary all have entries for row house, with no variants. But in Baltimore and Philadelphia, where people have lived for generations in blocks of attached houses, the closed compound dominates.
Twenty years or so ago, when The Baltimore Sun merged the staffs of The Sun and The Evening Sun, which had been more or less friendly competitors throughout the twentieth century, one of the tasks was to resolve the inconsistencies in the two papers’ stylebooks. The Sun, following the dictionary, favored row house, and The Evening Sun followed local usage.
We decided that since we were a newspaper published in Baltimore for Baltimore readers, it made sense to follow the local preference. I added rowhouse to The Sun’s stylebook, and there it rests to this day, to the extent that anyone on the staff pays attention to the stylebook. (We regularly get copy bearing the Realtors’ gentrifying row home, and I haven’t been able to stamp that out.)
Rowhouse is a long-attested usage, as can be found, for example, in Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward’s The Baltimore Rowhouse (2012), J.A. Usner’s Rowhouse Reflections (2002), Jonathan Scott Fuqua’s American Rowhouse Classic Designs (1997), Rachel Simmons Schade’s Phiuladelphia Rowhouse Manual (2008), and Cristine M. Hunter’s Ranches, Rowhouses, and Railroad Flats (1999). In addition, a simple Google search will supply numerous citations for rowhouse.
Let me suggest (and I’m talking to you, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage) that it would not take a great deal of heavy lifting to justify rowhouse as an alternate spelling in dictionaries.
Once it’s in there, we can shut down the dictionary fundamentalists.