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The Use of Hyphens with Prefixes

Identifying and understanding prefixes may not be as difficult as one may assume. Knowing when to put hyphens after prefixes is a completely different story. Fortunately, there are some general rules to be followed. But first, let’s quickly recap what prefixes stand for.

A prefix is an affix used at the beginning of an existing word to create a new word with a brand new meaning. It can also change the grammatical function of a word in a sentence.

Example

✔️ My parents got married in the 1970s. vs My parents got married in the mid-1970s.

There is often confusion over whether a prefix should be used along with a hyphen. Should you write "anti-government" or "antigovernment"? Although you can’t rely on a single rule governing this, you can follow some guiding principles.

Guiding Principles for Hyphens with Prefixes

In most cases, you can decide whether to use a hyphen or not. If a word looks too unwieldy, you should use a hyphen. To be 100% sure, refer to a spellchecker.

Example

✔️ "Proactive" is not wrong, but it looks strange. If you feel the same way, write "pro-active."

If your prefix is located before a proper noun, you must use a hyphen. There is no other option.

Example

  • ✔️ un-British
  • ✔️ pro-Nazi

If a prefix ending and a word root have the same vowel, you should separate them with a hyphen.

Example

  • ✔️ semi-informative
  • ✔️ re-enter
  • ✔️ ultra-aggressive

If a prefix ending and a word root have an "o," the situation becomes slightly different. If you are fine with how the word looks without a hyphen and your spellchecker indicates no mistake either, you can skip a hyphen.

Example

  • ✔️ cooperate (co-operate is also possible)
  • ✔️ coordinate (co-ordinate is also possible)
  • ✔️ coowner (co-owner is also possible)

If one word with a prefix can be confused with another word without a prefix, the use of hyphen is inevitable. This issue mainly occurs with the prefix "re."

Example

  • ✔️ re-cover vs recover
  • ✔️ re-consider vs reconsider
  • ✔️ re-press vs repress

Additional Guidelines

Now that you know how a hyphen functions in prefixed words, you can get some additional tips on its use. Let’s check them out!

Hyphen Hyphen
“in-,” “un-,” “non-,” and “anti-” stand before certain Latin derivatives indescribable
unfaithful
nonchalant
antibody
“a-” stand before some Greek derivatives asymmetrical
"all-", "cross-", "ex-", and "self-" always need a hyphen all-encompassing
cross-cultural
ex-boyfriend
self-confidence
all prefixes preceding a proper noun, a number, or an abbreviation trans-Atlantic network
mid-1980s

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