Can We Cooperate About “Co-”?

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I’m not holding my breath about world peace, and I’m not any more sanguine about consensus on the prefix co-, but here’s an appeal about coming to terms about this term.

Generally, no hyphen is required to link this prefix to root words. In the case of many prefixes, the element is initially attached to the root word, but as readers and writers become accustomed to the new construction, the linking device is omitted, and the components are joined.

However, some constructions resist this transformation because the resulting fusion looks odd. We make exceptions for certain contiguous vowels (anti-inflammatory) or for some awkward-looking combinations (pro-choice, though proactive and most other pro- constructions are closed). But the default setting, at least in American English, is to discard the hyphen and close up the resulting space.

Among the difficulties (for careful writers and most editors, at least) is that inconsistency is jarring. For example, codependent and cohabit are closed, but co-occurrence and co-owner, because of the proximity of the two os — which would, presumably, collide like bumper cars if not for the restraining influence of the hyphen, despite the fact that the components of cooperate manage to, well, cooperate just fine — are hyphenated. What do you do when one or more of that first pair of words appears in proximity (or even in the same article or book) to one or more of the second pair?

One solution is to get over it and allow the discrepancy; another is to break style and form coocurrence or coowner. (These are statements of options, not endorsements.) There’s a middle course, though, which I do endorse: Revise references to co-occurrence (“simultaneous occurrence”) or co-owner (“fellow owner” or “part owner”) and preserve the ideal that co- constructions are always closed. (Consider, too, avoiding words such as co-conspirator, in which the prefix is extraneous; what other kind of conspirator is there?)

There are always going to be such challenges (“The co-op manager flew the coop”), but you, dear writer or editor, always have access to online and print thesauri and synonym finders.

Some people bristle at the sight of coworker, distressed by the thought that the word seems to suggest someone who orks cows. (Sometimes what wonders exactly what else, if anything, certain colleagues do during their workday.) I respect the aesthetic sense of the protesters; they are reincarnations of those who shuddered at the sight of, yes, cooperation (formerly co-operation — referring, literally, to operating together — then coöperation). But today’s upstart is tomorrow’s ubiquity.

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22 thoughts on “Can We Cooperate About “Co-”?”

  1. I remember occasionally seeing a diacritical mark — what’s that called, diaresis? — something like that. Like a German umlaut. Anyhow, it went over the second syllable to make it clear that cooperate doesn’t rhyme with recuperate — coöperate — there, I pasted it in from MS Word.

  2. Oh how I cringe at coworker!

    Here in the UK we did not see that word at all until about 20 or so years ago when it arrived from America and the first time I saw it I did, indeed, think of cows!

    As you rightly say, there is no real need for it – colleagues is a perfectly good alternative. The Oxford English Dictionary does not have coworker at all, but gives co-worker (with the hyphen) as having origins in the mid 17th century.

    In the UK, incidentally, we use co-defendant, and co-dependent and not the closed versions (avoiding the unfortunate fishy suggestion of cod!). The OED entry for co- as a prefix, has scores of entries, roughly equally divided between hyphen and no hyphen.

  3. “(Consider, too, avoiding words such as co-conspirator … what other kind of conspirator is there?)”

    Someone who’s conspiring against you instead of with you, I suppose.

  4. I would like to have most prefix/root word combinations not use the hyphen, as the meaning is USUALLY evident in the context. But if that’s not possible, at least the ability to keep straight in my head the times when I need a hyphen.

    On a side note, I’ve always been irked when I see a list of officers (usually of some small non-professional committee) where there is a chair, followed by a co-chair (no second co-chair is listed), then secretary, treasurer, and so on. In this structure it’s apparent that the co-chair is a lesser position than the chair.

  5. I’m with Helen on the co-worker thing; I always do a double-take when I see it as one word, because from my eyes to my brain it comes in as cow orker. I don’t know why. It’s only for a nanosecond, of course, because before I can come to a full stop at that word, I am onto the next one, and the meaning is clear (although I think Mark is correct, and that is why I work at home, away from…cow orkers).
    I vaguely remember using the umlaut (double-dot) thing over the second O in cooperate. I have long since shed it, but I don’t like how it looks, all naked like that, and when I’m reading, my eyes slide over it and my brain still “hears” coop-erate (like what you do the first time, before you REcuperate). Ah, well…just the sign of a troubled mind. Or something.

  6. Great post on whether to hyphenate “co” as a prefix; especially the argument against writing “co-conspirator” or caviling over “coworker.” But, in making the latter argument, typo: “(Sometimes what wonders exactly what else, if anything, certain colleagues do during their workday.)” (First “what” should be “one”?) (This from one who made two bloopers on chat posts recently). -the prowling pedant

  7. >>Consider, too, avoiding words such as co-conspirator, in which the prefix is extraneous;

    I’ve been waiting for somebody to point this out since the Watergate hearings. Was hoping William Safire would nip it in the bud, but I guess he was busy writing speeches for the unindicted co-conspirator (probably should be shortened to “dicted conspirator”).

  8. Mark:

    On coworker: I had to laugh. I will now never again see it in the same light….

    On cooperate: I never saw anything wrong with the closed structure, since in Spanish (my native language) it is also “cooperar”, so my mind sort of slid naturally into it.

    I especially liked the suggestions to use alternative phrasing to avoid jarring “co-” constructions, but in the case of conspirators, I believe that there is a distinction (as pointed out by @b ramsay above), and it could well be signalled by saying instead “fellow conspirator”, which sounds a lot better and more natural, when referring to someone who is conspirating “with” you and “against” somebody else.

  9. I guess that the “co” in front of conspirator implies that there is more than one person involved in the same plot. I suppose that one person can conspire to do something (making him a conspirator), and then if others join in, they are co-conspirators. If they are just called conspirators, they may be conspiring to do something, but not necessarily the same thing.

  10. How can one person conspire to do something? Is that one of those “one hand clapping” phrases from Buddhism or something, LOL?

    Maybe we need to drop conspirator altogether and distinguish: A prospirator works with you, and antispirator works against you, and a proconspirator is either proconfused, or a a double agent.

  11. Why can’t one person conspire to do something? To conspire is to plot or plan. Does it absolutely require others’ involvement?

  12. The purpose of punctuation is to make the written word easier to read and understand. Using co+hyphen makes perfect sense, and there is no logical reason to avoid using it.

  13. @bluebird, I think conspiracy carries the implication of something being done together with others, in this case, breathing the same air, with the same root as ‘respiration’?

    @ venqax, I like that! There are some nouns that are inherently relational, even without a verb. Brother, for instance, or neighbor. Victory, or defeat. They always imply something else in the picture, unacknowledged but always there.

  14. @Mary: Well, perhaps the implication is not true for a conspirator, and that is why we have the word co-conspirator. I did look it up also, and I found the same info that you mention, but it didn’t say it must involve more than one person. Would it be incorrect for me to say that I conspired to drug my office manager, without having anyone else involved in the conspiracy?
    @DHH: Totally agree!

  15. This sentence:

    (Sometimes what wonders exactly what else, if anything, certain colleagues do during their workday.)

    should probably read:

    (Sometimes one wonders exactly what else, if anything, certain colleagues do during their workday.)


  16. A propos – one of my EFL students asked me today what the difference was between a colleague and co-worker. I teach in Poland where the word Kolega is a false friend, meaning, in fact, friend. I see that the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary has them as synonymous, but I was beginning to wonder. I don’t think co-worker is a word I’ve ever used, but colleague sounds to me to be someone relatively close to me in level and department, whereas co-worker could just be anyone else in the building. Or am I just inventing a distinction which doesn’t exist. Any thoughts?

  17. @Warsaw Will: Agreed. I have many colleagues with whom I don’t work, and co-workers who are not colleagues, in the sense that they work for the same company, or in the same office, but have nothing to do with me per se.

  18. This topic is one that I solved years ago (courtesy of “The New Yorker”). I simply put an umlaut over the second vowel of a possible diphthong to alert the reader that the second vowel is pronounced on its own. So, rather than “cooperate,” write “coöperate.” They’re all available to those who seek: ä, ë, ï, ö, & ü. We already do it with “naïve,” so why not make it all that much easier for similar questionable situations?

    As for valid diphthongs and other pesky graphemes, there are certainly plenty of ligatures available, e.g., æ, ff, fi, fl, ffi, ffl, & œ. Use them. They’re not pretentious, they’re a sign of someone who know his/her language (English) and relishes in its beauty and diversity.

  19. Skip Knox on February 14, 2013 1:06 am

    Cooperation: that’s the act of making barrels, isn’t it?

    You’re thinking of cooperal. It’s a type of punishment that involves hitting someone with a barrel.

  20. @Matt Gaffney: These special characters and diacritical marks are fine–sometimes. However, I work in the medical field, mainly doing transcription, and the word-processing types of platforms in which we work may or may not support use of those characters and marks. In addition, even if we are able to use them on our end, as we type, they may not “translate” when we transmit the reports to the hospital EMR [electronic medical record], and you end up with bizarre things (like upside-down question marks, the letter “J,” or a blank space). So, for example, something simple like H&P will show up, in the patient’s chart as H P. What I’m saying is, yes, you can solve the problem your way (which is ideal), but since life isn’t always ideal, your solution won’t always work! Sorry ’bout that, chief.

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