January 23, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Using hyphens with prefixes

Posted in hyphen, hyphens and prefixes at 6:57 am by dlseltzer

Today, I am writing about something that we have addressed before, but something that deserves some more attention. Actually, it requires more attention. And the topic is using hyphens with prefixes. As a general rule, Americans don’t use hyphens with prefixes—we just add the prefix to the root word and let it go.

non                  noncompliant

de                    deidentify

semi                 semiregular

un                    unsuccessful

anti                  antiterrorist

pre                   prearranged

co                    codirector

Well, that seems pretty easy and straight forward.  And it would be, too, except for one little thing. And that little thing is (drumroll, please):

MICROSOFT WORD.

 Ah, the dreaded Microsoft Word. As you probably know, I hate Microsoft, and especially Microsoft Word. And I hate that its use is ubiquitous. Microsoft Word is a huge, bloated program that is difficult to learn and use. Its so-called ‘Help’ is impossible; it often is much easier to perform a google or some other search on how to do something in Word than to use Word’s ‘Help.’  But I am not going to go into my general Microsoft rant, now.

Instead, I am going into a very specific Microsoft Word rant. Whoever programmed the routine for hyphenating words for Word, does not know how to use hyphens. I know that using hyphens is a matter of style and not regulation, but Microsoft’s style doesn’t conform to any known style on the planet! I feel comfortable saying that it probably does not conform to any style in the universe!

In a document I was reviewing the other day, Word marked as misspelled, any word with the prefix ‘non’ used without a hyphen, including the following:

nontenure

noncardiac

nonpharamaceutical

For some reason, it was okay with ‘nonelderly.’ Don’t ask.

Word generally wants the writer to use hyphens with prefixes, and the poor writer who freaks out when seeing the red squiggly line that indicates a spelling mistake might be intimidated into following Word’s directive to use the hyphen. After all, can a program as big as Word, a program used by some many people, be wrong? The answer is a resounding:

YES! 

I have been unable to discern a pattern—sometimes it is okay to eliminate the hyphen and sometimes, not.

My advice on hyphenating when using Microsoft Word is this: don’t be bullied by Word. But don’t disregard the squiggly lines either—you might actually have a misspelling. Look at the word, and if the only thing wrong is Word’s inability to use prefixes, just right-click on the word, select ‘add,’ and you’ll never see the squiggly line under that particular word again.

Here’s what Pitt’s Style Guide says about prefixes and hyphenations:

The following prefixes are generally not hyphenated. They are hyphenated when (1) the second element is capitalized or is a figure, e.g., post-Victorian, pro-Soviet, pre-1960s; (2) there is a homonym, e.g., to recover a lost object and to re-cover a couch; or (3) use of a hyphen avoids a strange vowel connection, e.g., anti-inflation, co-owner, etc.

ante

inter

non

sub

anti

intra

over

super

bi

macro

post

supra

bio

meta

pre

trans

co

micro

pro

ultra

counter

mid

pseudo

un

extra

mini

re

under

infra

multi

semi

[NOTE: You didn’t know that Pitt has its own style guide, did you? Here’s the URL: http://www.communications.pitt.edu/styleguide/%5D

I go along with what Pitt says, here. However, Pitt’s Style Guide and AMA’s and Chicago’s and many others say that you need the hyphen for the prefixes ‘ex’ and ‘self.’ APA agrees and says that you also need the hyphen with ‘all’ and ‘cross.’ I think this is only temporary—the language is changing and I think future editions of the style guides will show this evolution.

I think we will see the following one of these days:

allterrain

exspouse

crosstown

selfcentered

We’ll see.

3 Comments »

  1. Chris said,

    Ha! This arrived just as I am trying to decide whether to hyphenate “physicochemical” in a text I’m revising. I think it is probably usual to include the hyphen in British English and to exclude it in American English. What do you think?

    • dlseltzer said,

      That’s correct but there is a move towards eschewing the hyphen in British English, also. I think eventually we will see less of the hyphen in this context.

  2. Tim P said,

    Every time I read an article here, I feel deeply humbled. And grateful.
    Thanks for a wonderful blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: