Identifying and understanding prefixes and suffixes of a word on their own may not be that difficult, but knowing where to put hyphens when you’re trying to write a uniquely arranged word or compound word isn’t always easy. Luckily, there are some general rules of thumb and tips to remember that everyone can follow to ensure that others at least understand what you’re trying to communicate. But first, let’s quickly recap what prefixes and suffixes are, and how they function.
Prefixes are added to the beginning of an existing word to create a new word with a different meaning. Prefixes don’t always have hyphens when they’re used, but they do change the grammatical function of a word in a sentence.
- The prefixes “in-,” “un-,” “non-,” and “anti-” generally pair up with certain Latin derivatives, and form words like “indescribable,” “nonchalant,” and “antihero.”
- The prefix “a-,” which means “without,” generally appears with Greek derivatives, as in words like “asymmetrical.”
- “Non-” is the most commonly used prefix and can precede almost any English word.
A suffix is a letter or a group of letters attached to the end of a word to form a new word, as well as to alter the way it functions grammatically in a sentence. Suffixes aren’t typically hyphenated either.
- Suffixes can change the plurality or tense of a base word, as with “-s” and “-ed.”
- Some suffixes change the part of speech a word owns, like “-ity,” which creates abstract nouns that express a state or condition.
When to Use Hyphens with Prefixes and Suffixes: Rules and Tips to Remember
As with most parts of the English language, rules for prefixes and suffixes aren’t as simple as they seem to be at first, and there are always exceptions to every rule. That’s why this list of rules and tips to remember for each should come in handy. Refer to it when you’re wondering whether you should or should not use a hyphen when you’re adding a prefix or suffix to a word.
One general rule of thumb to remember is that if a compound word with an affix (prefix or suffix) can easily be misread or misunderstood, you should include a hyphen to make the word clearer.
Hyphens are often used to make a text more precise and more reader-friendly. They’re also used to create useful multi-worded adjectives, such as “factory-made” or “half-baked.” And they’re also used to connect prefixes or words functioning as prefixes to base words. Oftentimes, it’s hard to know when to use a hyphen when you’re adding a prefix or suffix to a word.
Here are some tips and rules to remember when adding hyphens to prefixes and suffixes.
Hyphens with Prefixes
- Use a hyphen after the following prefixes in most words: "all-", "cross-", "ex-", and "self-" (e.g., “self-service,” “ex-boyfriend,” “all-encompassing”). Most "servo-" words are also hyphenated with the following two exceptions: “servomechanism” and “servomotor.”
- Hyphens are used after all prefixes preceding a proper noun, a number, or an abbreviation (e.g., "trans-Atlantic network," "mid-1960s," or "non-GABAergic responses").
- Insert a hyphen when the prefix ends with the same vowel that the base word being connected to it begins with (e.g., "intra-arterial," “co-occur,” "anti-immune").
- Include a hyphen after a prefix to ensure the true meaning of a word is clear (e.g., “re-sign,” which means “to sign again” and “re-create,” which means “to make over again”).
- Here are some very common prefixes that don’t usually have hyphens after them:
Hyphens with Suffixes
- Always use a hyphen with suffixes "-type," "-elect," and "-designate." (Examples: “president-elect”, “bold-type”).
- The suffix "-like" is hyphenated if:
- The root word is three or more syllables (e.g., emulsion-like, factory-like)
- A succession of three "L"s occurs with the addition of "like" (e.g., shell-like, bell-like)
- The root word is a proper noun (e.g., Apple-like computer, New York-like pizza)
- Use a hyphen before the suffix "-fold" if the number is equal to or greater than 10 or if an exact unit is used, typically including a decimal point (e.g., 1.25-fold). For numbers less than 10, the hyphen is excluded (such as "twofold" or "eightfold").
- In a combination of single-digit numbers, only the first has a hyphen (e.g., "two- and fourfold growths").
- Some suffixes will have hyphens when they’re used with a second adjective that modifies a noun. However, if this is not the case, then there is a space between the words (e.g., The test results were concentration dependent; the concentration-dependent results were recorded.).
Keep the list above nearby, so you can refer to it when you’re unsure about adding hyphens to words with prefixes and suffixes. There are still other exceptions to know when using prefixes and suffixes. The ones listed above are just the most common. Do you know of any that weren’t mentioned here? Share with us in the comments.