Happy the reader who is unselfconscious about hyphens. Or is it unself-conscious? Un-selfconscious? When we add a prefix to a word that’s already (sometimes) hyphenated, it’s not always obvious whether and where a hyphen should go in the new compound. Tastes differ. Even un-self-conscious has its advocates.
I’m all for the solid, unambiguous unselfconscious, recommended by the Oxford Manual of Style among others. But different compounds raise different issues, and there’s variation and disagreement in each case over which style works best. That may be understating it: Fowler referred to “chaos” and “humiliation” in the prevailing use of hyphens.
A reputable dictionary is a good place to start, but it won’t list all permutations. A trustworthy style manual will offer general guidelines and resolve common uncertainties. But the Economist style guide says there is “no firm rule to help you decide which words are run together, hyphenated or left separate”, while the AP Stylebook says hyphen use is “far from standardized”. Sooner or later you’ll need judgement.
Let’s take another look at un(-)self(-)conscious.
Self– often retains its hyphen when forming compounds, but un– tends not to. Unself-conscious is therefore a common style, but it can suggest consciousness of unself, which doesn’t mean anything unless intended and interpreted mystically. Ditto unself-aware, unself-obsessed, etc. – they can make the unwitting and nebulous idea of unself too explicit.
Ernest Gowers addressed this problem in The Complete Plain Words:
If you do split a word with a hyphen, make sure you split it at the main break. Though you may write self-conscious, if you wish to have a hyphen in the word, you must not write unself-conscious but un-selfconscious.
Retaining the original hyphen’s position, though a common custom, can interfere with comprehension. John Clay’s biography R. D. Laing: A Divided Self, for example, refers to the psychiatrist’s “measured and unself-seeking tone”. A moment’s reflection confirms that he means a tone that’s not self-seeking, but there are inadvertent echoes of a different – and plausibly Laingian – truth: a search for unself.
Steven Rose’s book Lifelines has a word that’s analogously structured but typographically more awkward in solid form: unselfreflective. I don’t think unself-reflective is an improvement – there’s the potential for compositional misdirection, and it looks top-heavy – but it is favoured by some editors. Un-selfreflective is messy. Un-self-reflective looks fractured and pedantic.
Multiple hyphenation can work, though many writers resist this useful technique or are unaware of its legitimacy. Take non-life-threatening. This is the best way to render that word, but I often come across nonlife-threatening (threatening to… nonlife?), and sometimes non-life threatening and even non life-threatening. These last two unacceptably detach part of the compound.
When editing or proofreading I regularly see non used as a standalone word. Lynne Murphy has also noticed the “widespread habit in BrE writing of treating some prefixes as separate words”. This practice is unequivocally non-standard. Nonstandard is fine too, by the way. John E. McIntyre has this advice:
Whatever dictionary you happen to use should have an extensive display of non– compounds, some hyphenated and many not. You can look things up or not, depending on whether you have the time, but here is a little guideline for non– compounds: If it looks odd without a hyphen, or you think the reader might stumble over it, put a hyphen in.
Common sense alone should do grave injury to nonlife-threatening.
Hyphens are often dropped over time, and there is a tendency – stronger in US than UK English – to omit them when possible. It can lead to cases like antiindustrialism, which I read recently in Theodore Roszak’s The Voice of the Earth. This shows a failure of judgement, to my mind: perhaps through excessive allegiance to a house style that minimises hyphen use. But I’m sure it will find reasonable defenders.
Clarity should come first. Irrespective of location and vocation, I think most readers would agree that anti-industrialism needs the hyphen. Double consonants can warrant one too, as in part-time and non-negotiable. The t’s are more trouble than the n’s, mind, so the closed form nonnegotiable is common too, especially in US usage.
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, 7.85) “prefers a spare hyphenation style”, but takes care to specify exceptions. It recommends using a hyphen “only if doing so will aid readability”. Compounds formed with prefixes are “normally closed”, except:
before a compound term, such as non-self-sustaining . . . [and] to separate two i‘s, two a‘s, and other combinations of letters or syllables that might cause misreading, such as anti-intellectual, extra-alkaline, pro-life.
The AP Stylebook too says the fewer the better, and advises the use of hyphens “only when not using them causes confusion”. For example:
Except for cooperate and coordinate, use a hyphen if the prefix ends in a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel.
Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style advises similarly: solid nonaligned and anticrime, but hyphenated anti-inflation and de-escalate. (Unmatching vowels can clash too, as in de-ice, though again US English is fine with deice.) M-W then cites exceptions to the exceptions: reelect, cooperate, etc. This is where the New Yorker uses a diaeresis.
When a prefix is added to an already hyphenated compound, Merriam-Webster continues,
it may be either followed by a hyphen or closed up solid to the next element. Permanent compounds of this kind should be checked in a dictionary.
Here we have the need for judgement and (if you’re not writing to a house style) room for personal preference. The examples M-W provides include unair-conditioned, non-self-governing, and unself-confident. I’m happy with non-self-governing. It’s non-life-threatening. I’d prefer unselfconfident. And I would recast unair-conditioned as non-air-conditioned or not air-conditioned or another alternative, to avoid the peculiar unair-.
In a similar vein, unco– is a frequent string in compounds. John Lyons’s Language and Linguistics mentions “unco-operative behaviour”. This orthographical practice struck Gowers as problematic, which I agree with, and “absurd”, which I don’t. An alternative style is to shift the hyphen forward, as in the Columbia Journalism Review’s un-coordinated.
Some readers pass over these forms without a hitch; others find them a little off balance, and would prefer uncooperative and uncoordinated. Extrapolation of a rule can be dangerous: even champions of cooperative recommend co-op to prevent misinterpretation.
Hyphens serve to reduce the possibility of confusion and ambiguity, which can arise easily with phrasal adjectives; compare little used car with little-used car. It gets trickier when prefixes like un– and non– are added to words that are already compounds. Your choice will depend on a variety of factors which I’ve treated only briefly here. But start with dictionaries and stylebooks, pay heed, and practise judgement.
I’ll leave the last word to John Benbow, once editor of the stylebook of Oxford University Press in New York:
There are cases where it is required unmistakably, others equally certain where it should not be used, but between there is a great twilight zone. If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.