“Non-Hyphenation” Is a Nonstarter

By Mark Nichol

A friend of mine recently posted online a humorous observation to the effect that it’s ironic that non-hyphenation is hyphenated. In true word-nerd fashion, I figuratively cleared my throat and pushed my taped-together black horn-rimmed glasses up my nose before offering the deflating response that nonhyphenation does not in fact have a hyphen. (What are friends for?)

My friend’s misapprehension is a common one. Hyphenation in prefixed words remains rampant in writing ranging from social media posts to scholarly journals, though style manuals have more or less long advocated minimizing their use. Why, then, the persistence of non-profit, multi-billion (as in “multi-billion dollar budget,” which errs also in lacking a hyphen before dollar), pre-approved, post-modern, and the like?

First, some history: The hyphen began as an arc-shaped symbol called the enotikon, which was marked underneath letters in Greek script to denote a connection between two words. (The Greek term means “uniter.”) During the Middle Ages, a straight line with a similar role was adopted in Latin, and Gutenberg raised the symbol to the middle of the line of text, and furthermore adopted an angled double line resembling an equal sign at the end of a line, borrowing from writing of Latin script, when insufficient room remained to set an entire word with uniformly sized metal type, allowing him to break words to fit where necessary. (Many proofreaders who proof on paper still use an equal sign to denote a hyphen; the rationale for retaining the double line when marking proofs is that it is less likely than a single line to be missed or to be mistaken for an accidental mark.)

The trend in English is to phase out hyphenation when terms become more familiar. British English has also historically been more conservative than American English about retaining hyphens not only in prefixed words but also in compound nouns, as in dining-room or shop-keeper, which are now in both forms of English open and closed, respectively; many such constructions were purged from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary only in the last decade.

Meanwhile, style guides strive to minimize inconsistency, but individual or regional preference and specialized occupational usage may resist progress. However, the most significant factor in the persistence of hyphens in prefixed words and in compounds may be that most people, including many professional writers, do not check dictionaries or style guides to verify or correct their assumptions, often relying on what they learned from (sometimes misinformed) teachers or from published resources—sometimes decades ago, before the hyphen became an endangered species in compounds and prefixed words.

To recap (not re-cap): Hyphens in such constructions are the exception, not the rule. (They do have valid applications, as many DailyWritingTips.com posts discuss; search the site for “hyphen” or “hyphenation” for examples.) If you are inclined to hyphenate a prefixed word or a compound word, double-check a dictionary or a style guide for prevailing style before you commit yourself. There’s no hyphen, and thus no irony, in nonhyphenated.

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9 Responses to ““Non-Hyphenation” Is a Nonstarter”

  • Michael J Tobias

    Here’s one you can’t correct: the word “indescribable” is an adjective. I’ve always gotten a kick out of that. I’m not quite sure what it says about humanity that we had to invent a word to describe that which defies description, but it’s amusing to me 🙂

  • Cygnifier

    The hyphenated forms often show up because they are a visual aid to both the writer and the reader. Running too many elements together, especially if a prefix ends with a vowel and the main word begins with one, makes scanning difficult. “Nonhyphenation” is long enough that not hyphenating makes it hard to read. So erring on the side of being helpful to the reader, even if the dictionary (which is a record of usage, not of absolute rules) no longer maintains the hyphenated form, is a reasonable choice to make.

  • Martin

    One of my favorite writers, Thomas Sowell, would probably disagree with you. His article “Some Thoughts About Writing” is absolutely delightful to read. (I just reread it and am still smiling.) One of his main themes is dealing with editors and copy-editors. (His hyphen, not mine.)

    An excerpt:
    One of the many fetishes of copy-editors is getting rid of hyphens. As hyphens are exterminated like vermin, readers find themselves forced to pause to confront puzzling new words that might be pronounced “rein’ vest” or “cow’ orkers” instead of re-invest and co-workers. To ask what useful purpose is served by such practices is to betray ignorance of the zeitgeist of the bureaucrat. It is rules for rules’ sake, like art for art’s sake.

  • Richard Wheeler

    Well said, Cygnifier.

    In the article, “pre-approved” stood out. I don’t like having to stop and think about where the word divides up into its root words in order to decide which word it is.

    Hyphens, like commas, serve to make reading easier. Unlike with commas, logical rules don’t seem to exist for the decision to use a space or hyphen or to merge the words. Many times, grammarians declare commas to be optional where following the rule does not add much to securing the meaning. Because hyphenation has even less guidance, we should allow even more latitude.

    We recently read how a dairy lost $10 million in a lawsuit because legislators omitted a serial comma; has there ever been an analogous case caused by a poor decision over hyphenation?

  • Dale A. Wood

    None of these is either hyphenated or an open compound:
    bathroom, bedroom, bunkroom, guardroom, headroom, legroom, mailroom, restroom, wardroom, workroom,…

  • Dale A. Wood

    On the other hand, these are never hyphenated or written as closed compounds:
    entertainment room, living room, main room, operating room, prayer room, radio room, sitting room, storage room, toilet room, TV room, utility room,…
    This is getting difficult for someone whose native language is not English, and especially in reading and writing. There aren’t any set rules for these.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, this darned computer system was uncooperative with me, and it dumped a lot of stuff for me.
    Earlier, I had written down dining room (never hyphenated as far as I know), classroom, computer room, guestroom, boardroom, meeting room, assembly room, playroom, radar room, sunroom…

  • Dale A. Wood

    What are the poor learners of a foreign language (English!) supposed to do?
    barroom, coffee room, council room, detention room, dressing room, engine room, exercise room, footroom, greenroom, hiproom, mailroom, music room, reading room, ready room, shoulder room, sickroom, sleeping room, steering room, treatment room, writing room…
    How on God’s green Earth does an immigrant from a really foreign land cope with this? It seems overwhelming to me right now, and I know all of these!
    By the way, the German word for “bedroom” is “Schlafzimmer” = “sleeping room”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Now for all of the other words for such places, with independent roots, and sometimes don’t we wish that we had houses that had all of these old-fashioned places:
    arbor, foyer, garage, kennel, pantry, parlor, servants’ quarters, scullery, smokehouse, stables, toolshed, vestibule, wine cellar.
    Wow, this sounds like something straight out of Colonial Williamsburg, Newport (Rhode Island), New Haven, the Old South, or the Tsar’s palace.

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