May 14, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphens for clarity

Posted in hyphen, hyphens for clarity at 8:41 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I have a question about re- versus re.

Usually I just go to a dictionary when I’m unsure, but I wondered if there’s a general rule that I don’t know about.

Why is it re-animate but repay? etc. etc.

Both forms would seem to imply “again” or “back.”

Yay! I love it when a reader asks me about hyphens. As I’ve mentioned (in about ten previous discussions about using hyphens), the hyphen is underused and under appreciated. Its elegance is in its simplicity. For graceful good looks, I would go to the ampersand (&), but for sheer simplicity and utility, I’ll take the hyphen. Of course, there’s always the period and the comma. But the period and the comma are much more recognized and used than the simple utilitarian hyphen. Yesterday, I was reading something (I don’t recall what), and the author was raving about the hyphen being overused. What? That author was definitely not reading the same grant proposals and manuscripts that I’ve been reading!

I have an answer for my reader, and it’s really pretty easy. You need the hyphen if there is the possibility of misunderstanding—not just in definition but also in pronunciation. Without the hyphenation, someone could pronounce re-animate, “reenimate.” The hyphen is very helpful here. It makes it abundantly clear that ‘re-an’ consists of two syllables and not one. That being said, many dictionaries, under the assumption that we are sufficiently familiar with the pronunciation, list ‘reanimate’ without the hyphenation. Writers choice. Because we need to be precise when we write, we often use the hyphen to ensure clarity. Another prefix that is also often confusing is ‘co.’ Some ‘co’ words that have the potential for being confused with respect to punctuation are co-investigator, not “coin-vestigator,” co-worker, not “cow-orker,” and co-director, not “cod-irector.”

Okay. You know there are many uses for the hyphen, but today, we are talking only about using hyphens for avoiding misunderstandings and improving clarity with respect to meanings or pronunciations. Here are some examples of ‘re’ words that need clarity in terms of meaning:

Recover                     Re-cover

Resign                         Re-sign

Represent                 Re-present

Recount                     Re-count

Recreate                    Re-create

Release                       Re-lease

Replace                       Re-place

Resent                         Re-sent

Retreat                        Re-treat

Repressed                   Re-pressed

That’s just a few of the ‘re’ words.

So that’s it: use the hyphen to ensure clarity. And thanks for the opportunity to salute the hyphen again. Hip hip hooray!



  1. nickfielden said,

    Thank you very much.

    The lonely, ignored hyphen is not over-used. It is under-appreciated and should be be-medalled.


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