July 31, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: prefixes, hyphens, & because and that

Posted in nauseated and nauseous, prefixes and hyphens, The reason is... at 8:41 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I have benefited considerably from your informative and entertaining lexical and semantic observations for the past year though as a passive participant. However, having been involved in desperately searching for “recuse” with my colleague, I am compelled to respond with gratitude to your confirming that neither of us (at least on the basis of this evidence) have lost our marbles or (in my case) need my medication dosage altered…

Do you have any position on “netroots”, a term I encountered for the first time last week in an article about the growth of blogging. Since this is an activity which I have disavowed as being too Generation X (or is it Y?) for me, perhaps I need to recuse myself from this discussion.


My response: I love “netroots.” I think it’s very expressive, and I hope it catches on.

Well, after I did a little research on the term, I found that it already has caught on.

First coined in 1993, the term started to be widely popularized in 2002.

“Netroots is a recent term coined to describe political activism organized through blogs and other online media, including wikis and social network services. The word is a portmanteau of Internet and grassroots, reflecting the technological innovations that set netroots techniques apart from other forms of political participation. In the United States, the term is used mainly in left-leaning circles.”

Netroots. Reference.com. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Netroots

And to my chagrin, my friend, Mr. Safire, wrote about it a couple of years ago.


Now, to my surprise, I cannot find the word on any of my on-line dictionaries; however, I am confident that it will be on both our on-line and hard copy dictionaries soon.

Tip 1: Prefixes and hyphens

A reader writes:

Another controversy is upon me ….

is co-morbid or comorbid correct?

(or) when do you put a dash between co- pre- post-,etc. and when do you not? Is there a formal rule or is it ad-hoc based on the word and prefix.


These are great questions. And I had to do a bit of research to be confident in my answers.

First, the answer to the immediate question: “comorbid” is correct. Why? When “co,” which means “joint” or “together,” is appended to a word, it only takes a hyphen (not a dash [a dash is represented by two hyphens]) when the original word begins with “o” (e.g., co-opt, co-own) or when the new word created could be misread or looks really strange without it (e.g., co-inhabit [coinhabit], co-regulator [coregulator] ). Often, over time, some of these hyphenated words become one word (e.g., coauthor, coordinate).

Many of the authorities I reviewed indicated that, when in doubt about hyphenation, look it up in the dictionary. This turned out not to be particularly helpful. When I checked a dictionary, I found one entry for “comorbid” and one entry for “co-morbid.” So much for the easy answer.

“Pre” and “post” (preheat, postoperative), and most other prefixes, only take a hyphen:

1) When the original word begins with the same letter that the prefix ends with (post-travel, re-elect, non-negotiable);

2) When the prefix ends in a vowel and the original word begins with a vowel (e.g., pre-owned, pre-eminent, anti-aircraft);

3) When the word that the prefix is appended to begins with a number or a capital letter (pre-1990, non-English-speaking, anti-21st Century);

4) When the word following the prefix already includes a hyphen (globe-trotting, pre-globe-trotting, bribe-taking, non-bribe-taking);

5) When the word following the prefix is a compound word which does not use a hyphen (in this case, the white space must be replaced by another hyphen) (cold war, pre-cold-war, fourteenth century, post-fourteenth-century); or

6) When the new word created could be misread or looks really strange without it (e.g., re-covering [recovering], pre-empt [preempt].

As with “co,” some of these hyphenated words, over time, become one word (e.g., antiestablishment, posthumous).

However, there are a few prefixes that ALWAYS call for a hyphen. These are: “ex-,” “self,” and all” (e.g., self-congratulatory, ex-supervisor, all-encompassing).

Got all that?

This is really an awful lot to remember, so I would just recommend consistency if you forget the rules. Just use the same form of hyphenation throughout a document, and you will be fine.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English
Chicago Manual of Style
Fowler’s Modern English Usage

For today’s second tip, I was going to write about “nauseated” vs. “nauseous” (nauseated refers to feeling nausea, and nauseous refers to causing nausea in others), but I decided not to. Instead, for the second tip, we will look at…

Tip 2: The reason is…

Which is correct?

a. The reason we ended up with a null finding is because we didn’t think our hypotheses through enough.

b. The reason we ended up with a null finding is that we didn’t think our hypotheses through enough.

While we use “sentence a” in casual discourse, the correct answer is “sentence b.” The reason is because…only kidding. “Reason” and “because” are closely related in meaning, and, in standard English, the words are considered redundant.

Another way to make the above statement is:

We ended up with a null finding because we didn’t think our hypotheses through enough.

This version is probably the best as it simplifies the thought we are expressing.

1 Comment »

  1. dlseltzer said,

    Felicia writes:

    Deb, thank you for explaining a conundrum in my own research field (agriculture) which I’d never understood. Now I understand why we write “preharvest” and “postharvest,” whereas before I would always write “pre-harvest” and “post-harvest”.

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