To hyphenate or not to hyphenate


Today we’re discussing words with prefixes and whether we should hyphenate them. In general, English is moving away from hyphenation (it’s coworker, not co-worker, for instance), but there are some situations in which using the hyphen is the better course of action.

For this, I turned to the dog-eared, super-highlighted section 7.85 of my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is my go-to resource for style questions. (Word style, not fashion style—I can handle the latter part on my own. Hellooo, silver combat boots!)

Here’s what the book says about prefixes.
A hyphen should appear:
1)   Before a capitalized word or a numeral, such as sub-Saharan, pre-1950
2)   To separate two Is, two As, or two other same vowels, such as anti-intellectual, extra-alkaline
3)   To separate other combinations of letters or syllables that might cause misreading, such as pro-life

(There are a few more rules; however, these are the ones you’ll most often experience, so let’s keep our focus here. And, as always, there are exceptions to the rules above, but we’re discussing what you should generally do.)

So, according to rule 1, it would be prewar, but pre-WWII (because of the capitalization).

According to rule 2, it would be extrasmart, but extra-academic (because of having the two side-by-side letter As).

Rule 3 is where it gets tricky to me. It basically says, if you think not hyphenating a word may cause people to misread it, then use a hyphen. Well, that’s open to interpretation of what one thinks may lead to a misread. The rule, according to The Chicago Manual of Style is: when in doubt, check Merriam-Webster. This means, if a word is not hyphenated in that dictionary, don’t hyphenate it.

In the last book I edited, I had a conundrum with words starting with rein (so the prefix re- and a word that started with the letters I and N.) For example, this morning I looked up the word reinvest, as in “to invest again.” To me, I see this word as two words smushed together: rein and vest. It looks (to me) like a noun that means “a vest you wear with your reins.” Like: “I wore my reinvest so I didn’t fall off my horse.” But, of course, that’s not its meaning. Yet, the lords at Merriam-Webster think people won’t have a problem misreading that word, so it shouldn’t get a hyphen.

I might lose my grammar police badge for this, but in the last book I edited, I used my own judgment (in some cases) regarding hyphenation. I encourage you to do this, too. If you think readers will be confused if you don’t use a hyphen, then use a hyphen. (But don’t tell anyone I told you that.)

Decide if each word should be hyphenated. Keep in mind rules 1 and 2 mentioned above. (We’re not even going to get into rule 3 here because, as I mentioned, it’s too open to interpretation.)

1)   hyper active
2)   neo natal
3)   post 1984
4)   hyper sonic
5)   inner Chicago
6)   anti inflammatory
7)   non violent
8)   over zealous
9)   mega ambient
10)  co author

Answers: 1) hyperactive 2) neonatal 3) post-1984 4) hypersonic 5) inner-Chicago 6) anti-inflammatory 7) nonviolent 8) overzealous 9) mega-ambient 10) coauthor

16 thoughts on “To hyphenate or not to hyphenate

  1. Hi Erin, I love this blog. I particularly like this post because I often hyphenate more than I should. Now I know when and why I should or should not hyphenate. Thanks!


  2. Perhaps you didn’t have your coffee yet this morning? Reinvest: I agree it should be hyphenated to make sense in pronouciation, but “a vest you wear during your rein”?–well, maybe you can do a story on rein vs. reign. Maybe a “vest worn when horse riding”? 🙂


  3. Great advice! Punctuation serves the purpose of clarifying meaning, so I think re-invest is perfectly justified, regardless of Webster’s prescriptivism. Who made him king of English anyway?

    The hyphen rule #3 that you cite gives writers quite a bit of freedom. Since writing is an art and not a science, we should use that freedom without feeling too self-conscious about our choices.


  4. The problem I’m trying to solve today concerns coining new words. The example is “teleremote.” My contention is that it should be hyphenated because until right now, it didn’t exist. We’re alerting readers, warning them of an unusual formation. Eventually, if accepted, this will have no hyphen. Websters does not have an entry for this word. The OED doesn’t have an entry for this word. MS Word red-squiggles it. But… AP Style’s “Ask the Editor” column shows umpteen examples of newly coined words that they don’t want hyphens in. They include “telework” and “telehealth.” (Ick).

    I caved. I’m going with teleremote.


  5. Well, very good information. It was gratifying to see the word I was wondering about used in your quiz. I may tend to hyphenate a bit over-zealously.


  6. 1.Hyphenation rules — like other orthographical rules — are hardly ever a matter of making meaning clearer. They have much more to do with consistency and reader expectations. You do not what the mark or lack of a mark to distract or annoy a reader. You want the physical presence of your words to be invisible, unnoticed, as the reader “listens” without interruption to what he or she is reading, not stopping to remark, “Well, that looks wrong to me.”

    2. Yes, it’s true. English doesn’t seem to like hyphens. It has only ever liked them “at first,” while deciding what to do with the words that hyphens connected. Words like to-day, to-morrow and co-operate got mooshed together pretty quickly, while other hyphenated words simply refused their hyphens and are only written as separate words. Unfortunately, the dictionary lags behind contemporary usage. Some publishers don’t like to wait around until Webster’s catches up.

    3. So, no, sorry — you cannot always rely on the dictionary to play referee. You have to know the current guidance for hyphenation of a given style. Notice that Erin has not turned to a dictionary but to a style guide, the CMOS. It’s a doozy of a style (my favorite) — but it’s not the only one.

    And you can’t rely on a simple list of rules. You pretty much have to look up every stupid single thing. This drives some of our writers crazy, since we may be writing/editing in six different styles in the same day (AP, CMOS, CSE/Scientific/Engineering style, AMA, APA, etc.). But most of them, you get used to.

    Many so-called “different” styles are actually based on AP Style (journalism). That helps narrow it down. And yes, generally, AP Style defers to Webster’s — but only when it doesn’t have its own stipulated preference. You *always* must check the style first — then go to the default, which, if you’re American, is Webster’s Dictionary, the dictionary specifically written for U.S. English. (AP’s online subscription does that part for you — very convenient!).

    Here’s an example in which Webster’s and AP agree about *not* hyphenating a word and both include it in their guidance: the word “onboard,” as for the phrase “onboard equipment.”

    But for the compound noun “blasthole” and the adjectival use of that word in a phrase “blasthole rig,” AP offers no guidance, so you default to Webster’s, in which it is now one unhyphenated word in both cases — since contemporary usage is trending that way throughout most of the drilling and blasting industry, at least in the U.S. (since Webster’s is the “American” dictionary. But it still irritates some publication editors who persist in making it hyphenated. For the style of those publications, I have to hyphenate it for some and leave it as two words for others, consistent with their style.

    That’s what styles are: preferences written down for consistency. While some more legalistic minds would say, “Well, that style is wrong, because the *dictionary* says…, ” remember that the dictionary lags behind. The dictionary will change to keep up with contemporary usage of the styles later on. You need to go by the preference of the required style.

    Do you know *your* style’s rules for these word pairs? Are you ready for how they might change with a change in sentence structure? e: …

    onboard equipment vs equipment on board? — on board; on-board; or onboard?

    Web site; Web-site; website

    on site; on-site; onsite

    job site; job-site; jobsite (NOTE: AP spells it two words, unless *quoting* statements that use the compound version)

    work site; worksite; work-site

    (how many more have *you* run across?)


  7. I just proved No. 1 — Did you notice the typos? Was the sentence made incomprehensible, or did you just sneer and say, “Jeez. What an idjit.” I should have edited more instead of just rushed to get back to work. It cost me credibility points.

    *That’s* why we want to learn where our readers expect to see hyphens or not, or to recast a sentence to avoid using them at all. It is distracting. And, no matter how unfairly, it is a strike against our authority from a reader’s perspective,


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