Exceptions in the Rules of Hyphenation

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After thumbing through the dictionary or perusing a usage guide, you’d think that the trend in American English and, to a lesser extent, in British English is to omit hyphens from words consisting of a prefix attached to the root word. But reality begs to differ.

Mail sent from nonprofit organizations invariably features the word non-profit in the upper right-hand corner, where a stamp would normally be placed. (By contrast, the US Postal Service, on its Web site, correctly styles the term nonprofit — but the Internal Revenue Service employs the hyphen, as do many such organizations.) Commercial Web sites and product catalogs invite customers to plan ahead, using the word pre-order, though the dictionary listing is preorder. And many print or online references to peace movements feature the term anti-war, despite the designation of the standard form in virtually all writing resources as antiwar.

So, why do descriptivist and prescriptivist handbooks alike exhort readers to close the gap, when so many people who use the English language to communicate in writing ignore or are ignorant of the authorities’ citations?

The natural trend in associating words or parts of words is to first combine them in open compounds, later hyphenate them as they become more established, and finally convert them into closed compounds when familiarity is thoroughly achieved (though many compounds remain open or hyphenated long after these evolutionary stages seem overdue). But most writers — seemingly a majority of amateurs and definitely too many professionals — don’t pay attention to such details, though the standard is easily ascertained by a glance in a dictionary or another resource.

The exceptions to the preponderance of closed prefixes are relatively few and more or less simple. Retain a hyphen in the following cases:

  • When the root word is a proper noun (post-Depression) or a number (pre-1914)
  • When the prefix precedes an existing prefix (non-self-governing)
  • When the prefix precedes a proper open compound (“pre-Civil War”) — in such a case, the symbol should technically be an en dash, to help clarify that pre- modifies “Civil War,” not just the word it is actually attached to, but many publications, print and online, use a simple hyphen
  • When two instances of the letter i or the letter a are adjacent (anti-intellectual, extra-action), or another combination of letters could hamper reading (pro-labor and many other pro- constructions)
  • When a prefix is repeated (anti-antibody)
  • When suspensive hyphenation is employed (“over- and understimulation”)

Also, some people find it awkward to close up co- and a word starting with c (they prefer co-chair to cochair), with o (co-owner is preferred to coowner), or even with any word (coworker, instead of co-worker, annoys many writers).

In addition, there are isolated illogical exceptions. For example, why close up reentry but hyphenate de-emphasis? And an otherwise superfluous hyphen is often inserted to distinguish homographs (as with re-count, “to tally again,” as opposed to recount, “to narrate”). Some writers ignore this seemingly overcautious strategy, though a clear context doesn’t necessarily obviate it. (Sometimes, the distinction does seem unnecessary: How many people write recreate as the verb form of recreation compared to using the prevalent usage, meaning “to create again”? But, oddly, the dominant homograph is given the hyphenated form.)

Despite this apparent multitude of deviations from the norm, there is a norm: An overwhelming majority of prefixes are closed. But if you’re ever in doubt, just consult your dictionary.

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14 thoughts on “Exceptions in the Rules of Hyphenation”

  1. Not to contradict Mark’s elegant exposé, but by way of suggestive enlightenment, might it be the case that in examples like ‘anti-war’ some writers are conscious of a neologism, realizing that ‘anti-‘ is Latin and ‘war’ isn’t? Or am I ascribing too much sensibility?

  2. Charles, you make an excellent case for the supremacy of the message over the rules of grammar. Just one point, though, from your fist paragraph: Wouldn’t your explanation be something you subscribe to, rather than ascribe to?

    Just wondering.

  3. @ Tony – I would posit a more simple explanation, one that I ascribe to anyway.

    I often feel like I have to make the reader slow down from their glancing/skimming motion. The hyphen does that. ‘Nonprofit’ allows them to brush on by when I might want to get them to form the image of us as someone who needs help because we are a Non, two words, profit organization. ‘Preorder’ is lukewarm, doesn’t call for action, allows for la da dah preorder la da da da dah…I want you to Pre, stop for a moment, order. These aren’t merely another thought on the page. They are part and parcel of the image and action that I want to create.

    Also, in these cases, they are words that have shifted in usage. Nonprofit is a sped up adjective that has now taken over for a noun, while preorder is a noun that came from a verb. People are too busy and inured. It is a copywriter’s job to get the intention across to the next intention (without being offensive or any of the other caveats.)

    Similarly with antiwar. It doesn’t have the same bite as anti-war. It is onequickthought instead of the pounding of two drums.

    Dictionaries measure the sway of usage, as determined by some majority. I don’t mind being in the minority if it helps get the job done.

  4. At work I’ve been “translating” some of our content into Canadian English. The hyphenation rules are pretty much the same, but MS Word doesn’t like “nonprofit” when it’s set to Canadian English – it prefers the hyphen. Anyone know whether this is the case? Is there a particular Canadian dictionary I should check?

  5. I’d like to read a post about the various flavors of English used today. As a website content manager I worked with translators providing many versions of English – US, British, Canadian, Indian, Mideastern, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, Worldwide.

  6. @ Charles: I’m with you on this one. I think that the hyphen does make things stand out more, and as such allow for pause. Most people’s reading skills are not up to snuff anyway; add to that the fact that we’re all so bombarded with information that we do indeed tend to skim a lot…and miss a lot, or misread a lot.
    @ Mark: Thank goodness you’re OK with hyphenating co-worker. It is one of the most annoying things, to me, to see “coworker,” because I get a visual of a COW, and then have no idea–or perhaps don’t even want to know–what an ORKER is.

  7. Mark,

    Good guidelines. When in doubt, I rely (in order of authority) on Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, my gut.

    P.S. On an unrelated topic, I’m surprised to see you still use “Web site” instead of “website.” I stumble over it every time I see it in one of your posts. CMoS (which I realize isn’t everyone’s bible) adopted this style as of their 16th edition.

  8. This is one of my peeves, and I’d glad to see your post on the subject. When people ask me if a word should be hyphenated, I usually ask them, “Did you check your dictionary?” From their expression, I can tell the thought never occurred to them. Great advice–just check the dictionary!

  9. Charles Flynn, excellent post! I can’t say if all of your points are technically correct, but my own analytical mind agrees completely. I like your approach.

    I continue to struggle with hyphens despite having read many articles on the subject. For instance, I believe deck-to-deck should be hyphenated, but I have not yet found any authority that agrees with me (or disagrees, for that matter).

    The usage is probably what throws this one off. In the usage [this] deck to [that] deck (where this and that are implied words), hyphens don’t make sense as in, “the stairway runs from deck to deck.” In the use case of an object that spans decks, it seems like I should use hyphens as in, “It is a deck-to-deck stairway.”

  10. When the prefix precedes a proper open compound (“pre-Civil War”) — in such a case, the symbol should technically be an en dash,

    According to the Chicago Manual of Style…but that’s not the only style guide in existence, and others disagree.

  11. Todd, The Chicago Manual of Style does address this very issue. When a modifier precedes the noun it modifies, a hyphen is usually required. When the modifier follows the noun, a hyphen is usually not needed. Your sentences are perfect examples of these rules.

    The reddish-brown mud ruined my new dress.
    The mud all over my dress was reddish brown.


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