Inconsistent Hyphenation

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I have a bad habit (for an American) of looking things up in the OED first and not checking to see if Merriam-Webster agrees.

Sometimes this habit results in my changing a spelling that’s acceptable in U.S. usage or hyphenating a word that M-W doesn’t.

When I recently encountered online examples of the unhyphenated words unAmerican and copayment, I consulted both dictionaries to see if I had fallen behind the times.

Both OED and M-W show co-payment and un-American as the only options. Even the AP Stylebook allows a hyphen in un-American.

Perhaps online journalists and merchants who do not hyphenate these words are using other style guides. Or maybe they just don’t care.

Here are some examples that indicate that not everyone thinks that words like co-pay, co-payment, co-insurance and un-American require hyphens or even that adjectives from proper nouns require a capital.

Copayments and Other Information (Wisconsin information site)

What’s the difference between copays and coinsurance? (Quicken app FAQ)

The member only pays their copayment for any additional admissions (Blue Cross information site)

“UnAmerican Graffiti” (episode title, NYPD Blue)

“Unamerican” (song title on Cletus Got Shot album)

Unamerican (section title, Huffington Post)

My email to my unAmerican Representative (headline, Daily Kos)

Knowing when to hyphenate nouns formed with common prefixes like co- and un- can be tricky, even when consulting a dictionary or stylebook. For example, M-W hyphenates co-pay, but not coeditor. CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) goes with coeditor, but opts for co-opt. Both OED and AP give the nod to co-editor, and every one of the sources I use acknowledges the spelling un-American.

I find myself wanting to pick and choose according to my own feelings about the way a word looks.

Because I don’t like the look of coeditor and coauthor, I want to go with AP’s “Retain the hyphen when forming nouns, adjectives and verbs that indicate occupation or status.” But although AP includes co-author, co-pilot and co-star in the “occupation-status” category, they relegate coed to their unhyphenated list. If I want to write co-ed, I have to turn to M-W for justification.

Professional writers don’t have the option of this kind of mixing and matching. Publishers, on the other hand, do.

Some publishers and organizations compile their own” house style guides,” usually based on one of the standard guides, but altered in some respects. For example, the AP Stylebook recommends using the country name Myanmar. For political reasons, a publisher might supersede that rule, requiring his writers to refer to the country by its former name, Burma.

In the absence of a house guide, writers whose employer has adopted a particular style guide are bound to follow it, regardless of personal preference. Freelance writers, who are their own employers, should adopt a guide for themselves to follow.

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8 thoughts on “Inconsistent Hyphenation”

  1. Hello Maeve,

    Do not be ashamed in consulting the OED.
    If you have an on-line Pro account, you have full access to American editions also, as well as lots of other goodies, such as legal dictionaries and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

  2. I agree with you at almost every point. I will, however, venture the opinion that coed is a different word than co-ed. In the employment category you referred to immediately before discussing coed/co-ed, co-Ed would be a truncated form of co-editor and as such would rate a hyphen.

  3. This is un-believable. Wait. That shouldn’t be hyphened, should it? Good post. I appreciate what I learn here.

  4. For political reasons, a publisher might supersede that rule, requiring his writers to refer to the country by its former name, Burma.

    That is indeed correct! The U.S. Department of State calls that place BURMA, and that is more than good enough for me. Furthermore, that other name is one applied by the unjust dictatorial regime that has ruled Burma for decades. That other name is just as despicable as this other one. There was a part of western Czechoslovakia that was called “Sudetenland” by the evil regime of Nazi Germany, and nobody has used that name for that region since 1945.

    Going back to Burma, the language spoken there is Burmese, spoken by the Burmese people. There are also the Burmese python, the Burmese cat, and the Burmese tiger trap.
    Then there is the so-called “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”, which is NOT democratic, NOT the people’s, and NOT a republic.

    The same kind of triple contradiction applied to the Holy Roman Empire: not holy, not Roman, and not an empire.

  5. I, too, can find myself wanting to pick and choose according to my own feelings about the way a word looks. I always look it up though. I HAVE to feel sure, and actually hate when it’s an either/or type situation.

    The ones who leave out the hyphens when ALL sources state it should be there, to me, are just plain lazy. They don’t want to worry about the hyphen or having to look it up, as happens with so much with writing, especially on the internet. “Lazy” tends to trend 🙁

  6. I find it’s more of a “sound” thing. Without hyphens, some of those words could become “mispronounced” in the reader’s mind.

    Coop, for instance, is a place to hold chickens, not a job placement.

    Copay could be read as “cop eh”. Same as Copilot.

    The hyphen makes it clear how to pronounce the word.

  7. One more complication is when the hyphenated word comes within a proper name: the sometimes notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.

  8. Miswriting “co-star” as “costar” leads to confusion with “coaster”.
    Copout or cop-out ? “Who’s the cat who won’t cop-out when there’s danger all about?”
    Likewise, resign and re-sign are two different words.
    Watch out for phrases like “coquilles St. Jacques”. There does not seem to be any such thing as a “co-quille”. “Coquille” is the French word for “snail”.

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