Close the Gap on Prefixes and Suffixes
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.
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