Should you hyphenate words with prefixes?

June 4, 2014

Based on a recent Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues: Should you hyphenate words with prefixes or not?


As with other forms of hyphenation, the application of any ‘rules’ varies greatly and there are NO firm guidelines. Even in the same dictionary and for the same prefix, you can see every variation from two words separated by a space, to hyphenated, to closed (i.e. where the two words have become one).

Below is a table of some prefixes I checked in The Macquarie Dictionary (Australian). This is not a comprehensive list, and I would advise that you consult the dictionary for usage for a specific word.

How The Macquarie Dictionary deals with prefixed words

Prefix Hyphenated No hyphen My summary of Macquarie’s treatment
Bi bi-fold, bi-racial bilateral, biweekly, bimonthly, biannual, bilinear Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words
Bio bio-assay bioengineering, biohazard, biosafety, bioaccumulate, biochemical, biodiversity Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words
Macro macro-economic macrocosm, macronutrient, macrobiotic, macroclimate, macrofauna Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words
Micro micro-economic, micro-meteorology microorganism, microcosm, microgram, microcomputer, microanalysis, microfauna Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words
Multi multi-tasking, multi-user multigrain, multiskilling, multicellular, multifaceted Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words
Non non-resident, non-essential, non-government nonlethal, nonferrous Most are hyphenated, but check dictionary as no definite pattern
Re re-create, re-assess recreate, reprint, reroute ALWAYS check these as meaning can change with/without hyphen (e.g. re-create/recreate, re-petition/repetition, re-present/represent)
Self selfaccusation (n), selfrepresentation (n) self-accusatory (adj), self-stabilising (adj), self-funded (n)/self-funding (adj), self-examination (n) Most nouns are closed, most adjectives are hyphenated, but check dictionary as there’s much variation
Semi semi-absorbent, semi-arid, semi-formal, semi-government semifinal, semitropical, semiannual, semipermanent Very few have a hyphen; most are closed words


What the Australian Style Manual says

The Australian Style Manual (Snooks 2002) has this to say (p88-90; my emphasis):

‘There are few firm rules regarding hyphens, and dictionaries are often in disagreement. In general, British dictionaries are more inclined to hyphenate words than their American counterparts; the Macquarie and Australian Oxford dictionaries lie somewhere between the two. This divergence in practice means there are no simple rights or wrongs in this aspect of word punctuation. … the main concern should be to retain consistency throughout a document … choose one dictionary and stick to its hyphenation practices…

‘Hyphens can be an important device to avoid ambiguity, but [don’t] overuse them. …[Decide] whether or not to use a hyphen…based on the context in which the words appear.’

Grammar Girl’s opinion

See also

Some of my blog posts on the hyphenation issue from a few years ago:

[Links last checked June 2014]

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