You may find that there are some things you do almost automatically when you write. For example, you probably always capitalize the word “I” no matter where it appears in a sentence, and you probably always place a period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end of a sentence. In most cases, these habits are useful because they make sure our sentences are grammatical. Sometimes, though, we automatically do things that aren’t correct or at least aren’t necessary. One of these things is to use a hyphen between a prefix and a word.
Prefixes are short strings of letters that need to be attached to a main word. For example, “co-,” “non-,” and “pre-” are all prefixes. They can’t stand on their own as words, but they get tacked onto words to change the meaning of the words. These are all examples of words that contain prefixes:
If you’re like most people, you may think that you need to place a hyphen between a prefix and the base word that it’s attached to. That it, you may tend to write the four words listed above like this:
In reality, though, you usually don’t need the hyphen. Really??? Really.
If this threw you for a loop, we get it. Most people think they need to hyphenate words with prefixes, so you probably see these kinds of words hyphenated more often than you see them without hyphens. It’s similar to how we don’t see many sentences that start with conjunctions (e.g., “and,” “so,” or “but”) because most people think these sentences are grammatical.
As we talked about in our post on the 6 things that make people bad writers, just because a piece of writing has been published doesn’t mean that it’s a model of strong or grammatical writing. That’s why it can be helpful to turn to a reputable style guide for advice. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and the MLA Handbook all agree that you don’t need to place a hyphen between a prefix and a word.
Now, we should point out that there are some exceptions to the no-prefix rule. (After all, it wouldn’t be the English language if there weren’t some exceptions, right?) As we noted in our post on the difference between hyphens and dashes, here’s when you do need to use a hyphen between a prefix and a word:
- When the base word is capitalized (e.g., “post-Freudian”)
- When the same vowel appears at the end of the prefix and the beginning of the base word (e.g., “anti-icing”)
- This one helps people read the word by making it easier to see where the prefix ends and the base word begins
- When leaving the hyphen out would lead to misinterpretation (e.g., “re-cover” vs. “recover”; these are different words with different meanings)
- In these cases, leaving the hyphen out would change the meaning of the word
- When the word already contains a hyphen (e.g. “non-self-sustaining”)
- When a prefix stands alone (e.g., “low- and middle-income countries”)
So it’s true that there are some times when you need to use a hyphen between a prefix and a word. In most cases, though, you can save yourself a text character and leave that hyphen out. You never know, if you’re writing a grant proposal, conference abstract, or even a tweet, getting rid of those unnecessary hyphens could be the difference between being over vs. being under your word or character limit.
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