Hyphenating Prefixes

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A reader who works with legal transcription has the following question:

There seems to be a trend towards having the prefixes and suffixes separate from the modified noun instead of being attached or hyphenated. What is proper?  Some examples are non negotiable, post surgery, post doctorate, age wise.

The examples given present a variety of forms, not all of which represent a prefix+noun combination.

The prefix non- is added to nouns of action, condition, or quality with the sense of “absence, lack of,” or simply “not.” for example, non-Catholic.

Non- is affixed to adjectives to make them negative. Whether to add a hyphen depends upon whether American or British usage is being observed. The OED hyphenates many words that M-W shows written as one word. For example, M-W gives nonnegotiable, but OED has non-negotiable.

When it comes to another word in the reader’s list, however, both the OED and M-W agree with postdoctorate, although both prefer postdoctoral.

The prefix post- means, “after” or “behind.” It is added to adjectives without a hyphen: postcolonial, postsurgical. Post can be used on its own as a preposition meaning, “after”: “Your mouth will be extremely dry post surgery.” In this context post is a separate word. Added to a noun to create a descriptor, however, post would require a hyphen: “Post-surgery care is vitally important.”

The suffix -wise means, “in the manner of” or “as regards,” as in clockwise, lengthwise, foodwise, etc. This combining form is never separated from the word it’s added to, either by a hyphen or by a space. It can have other meanings, of course. For example, a person is said to be “penny wise, but pound foolish.” In this context wise is a word that means “possessing wisdom”; it is not a suffix.

Hyphenation is not an exact science. Authorities differ regarding the necessity of a hyphen, but I’m reasonably sure that all agree that suffixes aren’t free agents that can stand apart from the words they belong to.

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31 thoughts on “Hyphenating Prefixes”

  1. As usual, an informative post. I do offer one correction: the expression is “penny wise and pound foolish.” A slip of the fingers, I’m sure. 🙂

  2. Yes, I agree with Julie Link. The expression “Penny wise BUT pound foolish” goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin in Colonial America, if it wasn’t in the language already before that.

  3. The word “non-Catholic” is hyphenated for the simple reason that “Catholic” is a proper noun and a proper adjective, and it must be capitalized. Other examples of this include non-Asian, non-British, non-English, non-Fascist, non-Marxist, and non-Protestant.
    Note that nonfascist is also useful, as is noncommunist.

    Note that lots of these words come to mind because I and non-Fascist, non-Marxist, non-Nazi, non-Totaliarian, nonmonarchist, nonracist, nonignorant, nonpseudoscientific, and nonviolent. I am also antislavery, and very much profreedom in most regards.
    I guess that I just have an inborn hatred of people’s being ordered around unnecessarily.

    Sometimes when I was teaching college courses, I had to tell some of my students “Do that or die trying!” I got that from what Spartan mothers used to tell their sons: “Come back with your shield, or come back on it.”

  4. The words that end in “wise”, such as “clockwise”, are mentioned above. This brought to mind that in the majority of the English-speaking world, we use the word “counterclockwise” – abbreviated “CCW” in mechanical and civil engineering, as well as in physics.

    Yet, there is a minority of speakers that insists on “anticlockwise”. It just seems to me that everyone should use “counterclockwise” for uniformity in terminology. I wonder which word the Australians use because ever since World War II, Australian culture has become more and more Americanized via radio, TV, movies, and the printed media. Lots of Americans enjoy watching Australian movies like MAD MAX, too.

    Also, the Australian and the American armed forces have been close allies ever since 1942. Just look at how the Australians and the Americans worked closely together in the search for Malaysian Air Flight 370.
    Australia and the United States also have a bilateral mutual-defense treaty. New Zealand used to be in it (the ANZUS Treaty), too, but New Zealand has dropped out.

  5. Woundn’t nonpseudoscientific be scientific?

    Hyphenation is not an exact science. Authorities differ regarding the necessity of a hyphen.
    That’s very true. I’m not sure why (is hyphenation a relatively new thing?) but there really doesn’t seem to be much consensus about this, just preferences from different style guides which can be very arbitrary in their rule-making. I have to admit I’ve never really thought of hyphenation as a formally governed or formally-governed thing. I tend to hyphenate when it seems necessary and unless a word is well-established (see, need a hyphen there), prefixes are better hyphenated IMO. Non, post, pre, etc. usually seem to me better offset by a hyphen. Nonnegotiable just looks awful and is in that first micro-second head-spinning, (“Is that a Babylonian king, or something? Like Nonnibanipal, or Nonnegudnezzar?”). For me the hyphenate vs. combine question causes more vexation.

    I am not very often comfortable with MW as a source to finally settle these things. It is simply too “laxicographic” and jelly-spined on matters of orthoepy and usage to inspire confidence in me.

  6. clockwise, counterclockwise, lengthwise, breadthwise, dropwise, edgewise, inchwise, crabwise, piecewise,
    likewise, otherwise.

    By the way, “wise” is a Germanic suffix that is spelled “weise” in Modern German. The pronunciation is the same.
    The Germans have a good word that we don’t have the simple equivalent for in English. It is “massenweise”, and it means “in a large mass”. Many times, English writers use the French phrase “en masse”, which means the same thing as “massenweise”.

    Considering the great 70th anniversary that happened yesterday: “The Americans landed on Omaha Beach ‘en masse’ on D-Day, June 6th, 1944.”
    The large mass of U.S. Army soldiers there consisted of the 1st Infantry Division and the 29th Infantry Division.
    In North Carolina, U.S. Highway 29 is also called the “29th Infantry Division Memorial Highway.”
    I don’t know why this name has not been extended north and south to Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.
    Heading north, U.S. 29 ends just west of Baltimore, and heading south, it ends in Pensacola.

  7. Let’s hope that Venqax is “noncannabilistic”.

    The fact that nonpseudoscientific = scientific is the whole point of the word.
    I have even read of something called a pseudopseudotumor. It is a real medical term.
    Then there is the countercounterrevolutionary.

  8. I know that I am a little bird in a big sky, and that my opinion means nothing when up against OED, M-W, etc. But I agree with venqax that at times something just looks bad and begs for a little break, like those two Ns in “nonnegotiable.” As far as the “-wise” ending, in the medical field we get all kinds of weird stuff, maybe or not addressed by OED, M-W etc. Doctors say things like “Pulmonary-wise, the patient appears to be stable.” I would pluck out my tailfeathers before typing “pulmonarywise.” OTOH, I have given up hyphenating most things after the word “post.” So where I used to write “Post-discharge, the patient will be going to rehab,” I know just leave it as “Post discharge, the patient…” Apparently we have also done away with hyphenated-Americans; nobody informed me when this took place, but we are now just Elsewhere Americans, like African Americans (which is the label people tend to use to describe any person of dark-colored skin, no matter where they actually hail from). But I digress. Which is unnecessary in this arena, seeing as how other people already digress enough for all of us. Have a sublime day 🙂

  9. Julie,
    I’ve no idea how I managed to reverse the pound and the penny. I do know better. I’ll ask Daniel to fix it.


  10. I’ve no idea how I managed to reverse the pound and the penny.
    Very understandable from this side of the Atlantic. I think I hear “penny wise and dollar foolish” more often than any other version. That, of course, is natural. Comparing a unit of weight with a unit of money never did make any sense. 😉

  11. The word “nonnegative” is a perfectly reasonable one in mathematics and engineering, and it does not need a hyphen. For the real numbers, the set of nonnegative numbers includes all of the positive ones, plus zero.

    Let’s list some other ones with the “nn” and no hyphen: nonnative and nonnatural. Can you think of more? Other technical words with “non” include
    {nonabelian, nonelectrical, nonlinear, nonmagnetic, nonmetallic, nonparallel, nonperpendicular, nonreal, nontechnical, nonzero}.

    Some people don’t like it, but we live in a world of technology, and technology does have an effect on the language. One of those effects is words without hyphens.

  12. And technology has its own jargon which, like any specialized language, is only occassionally related to standard language. A lot of the terms listed above are ones only people in certain fields would use, need, or be aware of (nonabelian, nonreal, nonzero). That is fine, for them and that purpose. Regular standard English, though, may have different rules and norms. No one said nonnegative is “unreasonable”. But it is aesthetically unpleasant, initially somewhat puzzling, and in everyday language unnecessary. In math, e.g., maybe none of those things.

  13. NO!! (:)). We can’t say it’s acceptable and here is why: It doesn’t meet (notice it’s not spelled met) the standard ordinary rules for English spelling that would be phonetically correct. One of the biggest complaints about English– including on here– is its lack of phonetic spelling. So what, we’re just going to grow, exacerbate, and justify that “problem” by doing it with new words, too, so people in 20 years can say, “Why isn’t email spelled the way it sounds?”.

    By standard rules– whose jurisdiction the average citizen evidently wants increased, not eroded– “email” would be pronounced ə meɪl or ɛ meɪl. (I hope that comes out, can’t tell before posting). A schwaed, reduced vowel at the beginning, not a long E. E.g.,emit, effect, elide. Or a short E: elf, elder, elm, edible. None a stressed syllable with a long EE sound*. It’s really not EE-mit or EE-fect, let alone EElf, or EElder. So, to get rid of the hyphen (which I agree is a noble goal, since it’s a real PITA to type) we need to phoneticize the spelling. Eemail would work but would still be non-standard (no other way to pronounce it, but English words don’t usually begin with a double E). Most likely we have eamail. Just like Easter, east, eat, etc. All that said, I’m sure email will pree-vail and people in the future will continue to think spelling is pretty random which in THIS case it actually is because we are making it that way.

    *If the E were followed by a V, you would have a partial exception to this rule (even, evil, but still every, ever). That is because Vs are historically deviant in English spelling, damn them. An E followed by a W, however, is not an exception to this rule, but is a different case altogether because EW is a digraph in which the W is acting as a vowel. And of course—before they get trotted out—
    there are always non-English words and proper nouns to which the rules don’t necessarily apply: Ethan, Eden, eber

  14. Venqax, the phrase “penny wise and pound foolish” doesn’t compare money to weight; it compares units of British currency. (Or were you being facetious? I’m sometimes a little slow on the uptake.)

    And to your fascinating explanation of why e-mail must remain hyphenated, I DO pronounce emit, effect, and elide with a long e. Have I been wrong lo these many years? I hate being wrong!

  15. Venqax and Julie,
    OED, noted for its love of hyphens, gives “email.”

    The greater number of two-syllable words beginning with e are pronounced with an initial schwa sound–although I’d guess that many American speakers pronounce some of them with a long e.

    Proper names and non-English words like “Ethan,” “emu “and “ego” may be considered “exceptions,” but what about the very English words “even” and “evil”?

    I doubt that future generations will be puzzled about the spelling and pronunciation of “email.” “Mic,” on the other hand….

  16. @MM: You are right, but I did address those damnable Vs: *If the E were followed by a V, you would have a partial exception to this rule (even, evil, but still every, ever). That is because Vs are historically deviant in English spelling, damn them.

  17. @Julie: Just being facetious AND difficult. 🙂

    I DO pronounce emit, effect, and elide with a long e.
    @Julie Link: Just being facetious AND difficult. 🙂

    I DO pronounce emit, effect, and elide with a long e.
    Shame on you! Get thee to a pronouncery! Joking aside, those are usually considered “overpronunciations” by orthoepist types. Kind of like saying extra-ordinary (6 syllables) instead of extr’ordinary (5 syllables in SAE, extr’ordinr’y 4 in RP), or veg-et-able instead of veg’table. Or more directly, OH-fense or DEE-fense (outside of sporting contexts). The initial E is in reality an unstressed, schwaed vowel. In IPA it is usually denoted with the upside-down e, or the i with a line through it. Altho I’m sure MW accepts any of them without comment, including EExtraoridinary.

    I wonder how many “acceptable” pronunciations there are of Merriam? marry-am, murry-um, mur-yam, mur EYE am, mar EYE AIM, mem-erium (what’s a little mesathetis between people skeaping the same language, after all!)

  18. O.K., Venqax, Julie, etc.: “Effect” is pronounced with a short “e” in both positions. See these:

    Photoelectric effect, economic effects, electromagnetic effects, gravitational effects, Joule-Thompson effect, optical effects, quantum effects.

    I cannot get it where anyone would say that “effect” begins with a long “e”. Admit it!

  19. People in North America do not talk like Sir Alec Guiness did: “Only the Master of Eeevil, Darth!”

  20. Face up to it Venqax: You live in the Stone Age.
    Still, that is no reason to insult people who are well-versed in th 21st Century. You said:

    “And technology has its own jargon which, like any specialized language, is only occassionally related to standard language.” NOT TRUE ! Just admit it.

    Furthermore, “nonzero” is used all the time in nontechnical language, contrary to what you argued.
    People who are trying to sell something:
    “You will get a nonzero discount on that purchase.”
    “You have a nonzero chance of dying from this medical procedure.” “It is a nonzero distance from London to Dover.”

    Also, by your declarative statements, you want to spell “nonnegative” as “non-negative”. You are quite wrong. Many times, you act like Chairman Mao and his “Little Red Book”.

  21. I would be totally puzzled if anyone said any of these things to me:
    You will get a nonzero discount on that purchase.”
    “You have a nonzero chance of dying from this medical procedure.” “It is a nonzero distance from London to Dover.”

  22. @MM: Any normal person would be puzzled by those odd statements. DAW lives in an echo chamber.

    @DAW: Jargon is jargon. Look up that concept. Techno jargon is no different from any other. Jargon is not bad It is necessary in specialized areas. No one is insulting your jargon. BUT IT IS NOT STANDARD ENGLISH. That is the subject here; not tech writing or writing for engineering manuals. Your miscomprehension is way above nonzero. Here is some jargon: There is a strongly inverse correlation between the quantitative amount of blather and its reception as qualitatively valuable as probative.

  23. @Julie Link: “Effect” is pronounced with a short “e” in both positions.

    No, it’s not. Your long E pronunciation is more defensible than that.
    Some sources only list i-lek-trik (not using IPA). Even the standardless MW lists \i-ˈlek-trik, or ē- lek-trik\ . No short Es to be found.

  24. Venqax: being argumentative again, eh?
    “Effect” is pronounced with a short “e” in both positions. Don’t know what a short vowel is, and don’t know what a long vowel is. You haven’t studied speech recognition, and of course, you have not been to graduate school in the area like I have.
    Of course, you don’t know how things work in the 21st century, and you are unwilling to learn.
    How vowels behave in speech is essential in telecommunications.

    The word is not Eee-feect, and it is eF-fect.
    I even gave you an example of a long “e”:
    “Only the Master of Eeevil, Venqax.”


  25. Maeve, you have a lot to learn about the 21st century, and why do you reject it?
    “You have a nonzero chance of dying from this medical procedure.”

    That is a vital piece of information to understand before deciding whether to go forward with it or not.

    Also, before I take a job, I am interested in finding out if I will be getting a nonzero salary or wage.
    I have heard of cases like the following in real life:
    A says: “I got the job.”
    B asks: “How much will you make?”
    A answers: “I don’t know.”

    I heard this with my own ears. Someone whom I know took a job without knowing what the pay would be.

  26. D.A.W.
    I’m sure that I have a lot to learn about a lot of things.

    I’d be more likely to feel reassured if a doctor told me that I had “a zero chance of dying.” “Nonzero” is math jargon. I’m pleased that it means something to you. Even after looking it up in the dictionary, it remains meaningless to me.

  27. DAW, you, once again don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Just like Fred the Great and Fred Barbarossa aren’t the same person
    Just like midshipman aren’t commissioned officers
    Just like there are no district attorneys in the federal judiciary
    Just like the attorney general doesn’t pick or assign other US attorneys
    Just like Rickover was a 4-star, not a 3-star admiral
    The E at the beginning of electric is not short /ɛ/,it is reduced /ɨ, ə/

    Please don’t just spew things you are convinced you know. You’re wrong. Very overconfident. Try researching things instead of just blathering things you think you know. You are very smart, DAW, but you are not as smart as you think you are. Sorry if no one has told you that before.

  28. Just for the sake of thoroughness, here are 5 entries from 5 different dictionaries re the pronunciation of effect”. Notice none of them have the first and second Es the same. They all DO have the 2nd E as short. And the 2nd E only. (most aren’t using IPA)

    Online [ih-fekt]
    MW i-ˈfekt , /ɪˈfɛkt/
    Oxford iˈfekt
    Cambridge US ɪˈfekt
    free i-fekt

  29. 1. “Woundn’t nonpseudoscientific be scientific?” Yes, if you care only about denotation. If you care about connotation, you might notice that nonpseudoscientific implies that pseudoscientific “knowledge” exists and a rejection of if it occurs. Reducing the term to scientific could strip a sentence of meaning.

    2. The pronunciation of the initial e- in words must vary regionally. I have the top licenses from the FCC in broadcast engineering and Ham radio, a BS in electronics, and worked three decades in broadcasting and Systems Engineering (primarily on communications, satellite, and missile design).

    I have never, EVER heard electric or effect pronounce with a short i. Normally, they are pronounced with a short e (eh-… and same in BOTH syllables in ‘effect’) or u (uh-). However, I have often heard them pronounced with a long ‘e-‘. (Effective and effectivity have almost always been pronounced with a long e.) You can argue and cite, but such ees my experience. (Or, maybuh thi deefferince ees een how yew per-nounce yur i’s.)

    3. I think an interesting topic would be the differences in the usage of a-/an-, non-, and un-.

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