Close the Gap on Prefixes and Suffixes

By Mark Nichol - 2 minute read

background image 40

Thanks to widespread confusion about the correct treatment of prefixes and suffixes, syllables and words attached before or after root words, many people persist in inserting hyphens more frequently than necessary. Essentially, however, hyphens seldom belong in prefixed and suffixed words:

Prefixes and root words are almost always combined without hyphens (prepaid, nonprofit, posttraumatic). Exceptions include when the root word is a proper noun (un-Christian, anti-Semitic) or a number (“pre-2010 models”), or when the first letter of the root word and the prefix’s last letter are the same (anti-intellectual, co-opt). Repetitions of consonants, however (nonnative), are not excepted.

Some prefixes, like vice, unfortunately, are used indiscriminately; they may be disconnected (“vice president”), hyphenated (vice-regent), or closed up (viceregal). And then there are antonyms styled at odds with each other, such as on-screen and offscreen. (Easy solution: Reconcile them one way or the other.)

Other idiosyncratic instances of hyphenation include ambiguous treatments like re-cover in the sense of “to cover again,” rather than “to retrieve,” mid before a numbered century (“mid-twenty-first century” or “mid-21st century”), and non attached to an phrasal adjective (“non-meat-eating”).

A common error is to refer to very large amounts of money with a phrase like “multi-billion-dollar budget” or, worse, “multi-billion dollar budget.” However, words prefixed by multi need no hyphen: “multibillion-dollar budget.”

The en dash, a hyphen on steroids, is used when the link must carry more weight: when prefixes and suffixes are linked to permanent open compounds to form phrasal adjectives. Examples include “post–Civil War era” and “high school–age drivers.”

Suffixes are rarely hyphenated, either (airborne, lifelike, nationwide). Some sources suggest hyphenating borne, like, and wide to a word three or more syllables long, but it’s not necessary; communitywide, for example, may look cumbersome, but it’s best to be consistent. However, words ending in l, and most proper nouns, retain a hyphen when linked to like, and proper nouns linked to wide are always hyphenated.

Browse all articles on the Punctuation category or check the recommended content for you below:

17 Responses to “Close the Gap on Prefixes and Suffixes”

  • Eddy Bacher

    Your en dash looks like an em dash. An en dash is usually just a bit longer than a hyphen. I was taught that such dashes should not be set off with spaces. Your comment?

  • Eddy Bacher

    Where are you located such that my 10:16 am comment is listed as 1:16 pm? I’m located in Chicago, which is on CST.

  • Ashley

    I agree with Eddy. Your en dashes are definitely em dashes and should not be set off with spaces. Also, en dashes are specifically used with number ranges (55–75) and compound adjectives (probably very rarely actually applied).

    Em dashes are used similarly to parentheticals.

    I’ve never heard that either are used for increased emphasis; I don’t think that’s correct.

  • Mark Nichol


    You are correct. Thanks for pointing out that error, which I hope to have fixed soon.

    The publisher is based in Brazil (though I live in California).

  • Michael

    Hi Mark. Nice work. I suspect there ought to be a little room for house style, personal choice and national differences here. The Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, offers ‘post-classical’, ‘postdoctoral’, ‘co-operation’ or ‘cooperation’, ‘non-natural’, and ‘post-traumatic’. Perhaps this is one area where the consistency rule doesn’t apply too strictly and, if in doubt, one should dive for a modern dictionary.

  • daffy

    this is a very interesting post. i myself get confused with these rulings. you made a great point here.

  • Mark Nichol


    The em dashes were the result of an uploading error. They now appear as en dashes, as intended. As you say, the primary usage of en dashes is in number ranges and for compound adjectives, not as common as they should be because, as I mentioned, writers and editors are unaware of their utility or choose not to employ them.

  • Mark Nichol


    Of course, house style (a given publication’s amendments of a standard style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style trumps any other authority, although those who establish and/or maintain such resources should be take care when making exceptions. My wish is that that consistency be carried to the farthest reasonable extent and that deviation from a style guide of record be as minimal as possible.

    The modern dictionary I dive for, Merriam Webster’s, advocates hyphens in almost all prefix and suffix usage, which I fervently favor, but note my suggestions for variation in the third and last paragraphs of my post.

  • Mark Nichol


    Of course, house style (a given publication’s amendments of a standard style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style) trumps any other authority, although those who establish and/or maintain such resources — meaning, house style guides — should take care when making exceptions.

  • Eddy Bacher

    Why spaces on either side of the em dashes in Mark’s 4:09 pm post?

  • Mark Nichol


    Here’s my response to a similar query about another post:

    Many publications, including lots of Web sites, style em dashes with letter spaces preceding and following them because of the way text wraps, or transitions from one line to the next. If I were to omit letter spaces, a series of characters consisting of a word followed by an em dash followed by a word might be too long to fit at the end of a line.

    Because no letter spaces exist in this series, the entire series would break to the next line, which could form an unseemly dent in the margin.

    The style of margin this Web site uses — as do many others (and some print publications) — is called ragged right. In this style, each line ends randomly at the last word or punctuation mark that fits. Compare this style with a justified margin, the kind you see in many print publications, where each line is kerned, or spaced, to extend to a given width so that the right margin is aligned all up and down the page (or screen).

    That’s why em dashes are often styled without preceding and following letter spaces; the word-dash-word series won’t affect the margin.

    I actually prefer the closed style, but this Web site uses ragged-right margins, and, in the case of ragged-right margins, I align with the open style.

  • Eddy Bacher

    Now I understand your rationale. I guess I’ve always manipulated individual sentences in order to have my cake and eat it too … to use the closed style with ragged-right margins. But then, I’ve always had the luxury of publishing what I write. Thanks for your patience.

  • Peter

    @Mark: I don’t know whether it works here, but the solution is to close up your em dashes and follow each dash by a zero-width breakable “space” (like—​this) to allow breaking immediately after it. This blog already has code to expand a pair of hyphens into an em dash; it should be possible to make it expand an em dash into an em dash plus a zero-width space.

  • Mark Nichol

    I just noticed that my second February 14, 2011, comment has a small but significant error: The last sentence should read, “The modern dictionary I dive for, Merriam-Webster’s, advocates *no* hyphens in almost all prefix and suffix usage, which I fervently favor, but note my suggestions for variation in the third and last paragraphs of my post.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, I was astonished to read what you wrote: “Merriam-Webster’s, advocates hyphens in almost all prefix and suffix usage.”

    That sounds positively British. The people of the British Isles are the ones who insert excessive hyphens, even with words that have prefixes like “mini”, “multi”, “pre”, “re”, and “sub” (e.g. “mini-skirt”, which has been “miniskirt” for over 50 years, and “multi-role”, and sub-arctic).

    Furthermore, the British and the Irish want to include hyphens in such words as “North-west”, “North-east”, “South-west”, and “South-east” and even to write these as two proper nouns as “North East” and “North West”. To give you an example to the contrary, “Northwest” has been one word in the United States for over 220 years, and in Canada for over 100 years. See: Northwest Territory and Northwestern Territories, respectively, official names by law. Since it had worked so well in the U.S. and Canada for so long, why cannot they adopt the same thing in Britain, Ireland, Australia, etc.?

    Furthermore, by the rules of the International System of Units (which did come from France, yes), none of the following prefixes is followed by a hyphen: nano, micro, milli, centi, deci, deka, hecto, kilo, mega, giga, tera, etc. By rule, some of these can be shortened by dropping a consonant before a unit that starts with a consonant, such as in “hectare”, kilohm, and “megohm”.
    However, electrical engineers and technologists extend this by custom with microhm and gigohm – but milliohm is still used very commonly.

    Considering two consecutive vowels in a word, many people and I write “reentry”, but the Associated Press still insists on “re-entry”, even concerning spaceflight.

    Note that there is a difference between a technician and a technologist. Look them up if you please, but to be a technologist requires more education – and some technologists even have a four-year bachelor’s degree. I have taught many of them.

    So, “Merriam-Webster’s, advocates NO hyphens in almost all prefix and suffix usage.”

    Exceptions include when the root word is a proper noun: non-Christian, sub-Saharan, and anti-Semitic.
    Not the there is another form of the latter word that is written “antisemitic”. Look it up.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, I meant to type the “Northwest Territories”, a large part of Canada, one which used to be much larger before Nunavut was split off from it.
    Canada now has three territories: the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “However, words ending in l, and most proper nouns, retain a hyphen when linked to like, and proper nouns linked to wide are always hyphenated.”

    I do not think that a proper noun followed by “-like” is ever necessary! Just do not do it:

    Not “Martian-like”, but “like a Martian”. Not “Nazi-like”, but “like the Nazis”. Not “British-like”, but “like the British” or “like Britain”. Not “Holland-like”, but “Dutchlike”. Not “Alp-like”, but “like the Alps”, “like an Alp”, or “alpine”. Not “Japanese-like” or “Japan-like”, but “like Japanese”, “like the Japanese”, or “like Japan”.
    All it takes is using a little bit of craft with the language, and not taking the lazy way out with “-like”.

    The adjectives “moonlike” and “sunlike” ares already a common adjectives.
    Note that all of these adjectives that refer to astronomical bodies are common adjectives (i.e. no capitalization): solar, mercurian, venusian, terrestrial, lunar, martian, jovian, saturanian, uranian, neptunian, plutonian, ganymean, europan, titanian, tritonian, cerian.

    I wonder why journalists and spell-checkers cannot get this right?
    Also, note that venusian is an adjective, but a Venusian is a fictional inhabitant of the planet Venus; martian is an adjective, but a Martian is a fictional inhabitant of the planet Mars (Marvin Martin); jovian is an adjective, but a Jovian is a hypothetical inhabitant of the planet Jupiter.

Leave a comment: