Punctuation Review #4: Hyphenating with Prefixes

By Maeve Maddox

One function of the hyphen is to prevent misreading. For example, the shortened form of the noun meaning “an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services” is co-op, to distinguish it from the English word coop: “a cage or small enclosure for poultry or other small animals.”

Co-op is a shortening of the word spelled co-operative in the OED, but cooperative in Merriam-Webster.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster agree some of the time, but generally speaking, the OED is more likely than M-W to hyphenate. Here are some examples:

OED
co-ed
co-pay
co-author
co-pilot
co-editor

M-W
co-ed
co-pay
coauthor
copilot
coeditor

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, compounds formed with prefixes are closed, whether they are nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. For example:

antebellum
antihero
bisexual
coeditor
extramural
minivan
Neoplatonism

Note: The Word spell-checker suggests Neo-Platonism, but the OED and Merriam-Webster Unabridged give Neoplatonism.

nonviolent
prewar
reunify
semiconductor
superhuman
transcontinental
undereducated

A hyphen is used when the prefix precedes a capitalized word or a numeral:

un-American
sub-Saharan
mid-July
pre-1980

A hyphen is used to avoid misreading when the prefix ends with the same letter that begins the word element that follows:

anti-intellectual (not antiintellectual)
pre-emptory (not preemptory)

When it comes to hyphens, authorities do not always agree. The best practice is to adopt a style guide or dictionary and follow its recommendations.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


4 Responses to “Punctuation Review #4: Hyphenating with Prefixes”

  • Matt

    It’s funny, whenever you mention Word’s spell checker it always seems to be situations where Word gets it wrong! I’m not a fan of Word; this is just more grist for my mill. 🙂

  • Karen Smith

    One of mine is resent (bitter feeling) as opposed to re-sent (send again). Not sure what the official rule is, but hyphen avoids the confusion.

  • Artie

    The one that always throws me is ‘coworker’ . I always read it as someone who orks cows.

    Co-worker makes thing a lot clearer to my feeble self.

  • thebluebird11

    @Artie: Totally agree; that has orked me forever.
    @Maeve: I’m generally not skimpy in my use of hyphens, for purposes of reader comprehension and pronunciation. As far as some of your other examples, I would be OK with at least hyphenating when there are too many vowels (or maybe consonants, although I can’t think of an example) in a row. So, “coauthor” has 3 vowels in a row there. Too many; needs a hyphen. In the medical world, there are intra-abdominal, intra-atrial and intra-articular, but intracranial is fine as is. I have a “problem” (or would that be an “issue”?) with the phrase “instent restenosis,” which I prefer to type as “in-stent re-stenosis,” which is a condition of recurrent stenosis (narrowing) of a blood vessel (usually coronary artery) that already has a vascular stent in place. “Instent” just looks wrong, as if someone misspelled instant. And “restenosis” looks as if it should be pronounced “RES-ten-O-sis,” but it is “REE-sten-O-sis.” So yes, to avoid confusion, I generally am pretty liberal with hyphens.

Leave a comment: