Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

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.

unselfconscious hyphen

A big unselfconscious hyphen.

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.

Is the Moon unair-conditioned?

Is the Moon unair-conditioned?

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.


An interesting example in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley:

Some two years later Mark Boyman, a Toronto proucer, approached Cronenberg to direct The Incubus, on which he passed: 'The script was undo-able, I thought.' ...

‘The script was undo-able’ means the script could not be done, obviously, but on the face of it, undo-able suggests ‘could be undone’. The hyphen should go: undoable.

Sally Phipps’s biography Molly Keane: A Life has the following line:

All the children grew up to be perfectionists, to be competitive, and to be unself-forgiving if they fell short of their own high standards.

Unlike unselfconsciousunself-forgiving can’t simply be closed up, because unselfforgiving has that awkward double ‘f’. But it also unintentionally suggests ‘forgiving of unself’. I would suggest rephrasing: ‘…and to be unforgiving of themselves if they fell short…’

[moon image source]

57 Responses to Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens

  1. Harry Lake says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think there is a single point on which I disagree with you – except possibly that I do rather regard unco-operative as slightly absurd (though at a line break I find it passable.

  2. David Morris says:

    About 10 years ago I edited a Supreme Court judgement on the use of technology in criminal interviews, and the judge used a seemingly random combination of ‘audiotaped evidence’, ‘video-taped evidence’, ‘audio- and video evidence’, on audio-tape etc. I extracted them all to try to make sense of them. I think there were about 35 different combinations, and there was no way to make them all consistent.

  3. sherry says:

    I’m all for using hyphens for clarity, with the assumptions being that (a) I can tell what might be unclear to others, and (b) that I have the capacity to make it clear to them. Nevertheless, with some of the trickier compounds you mentioned, including unselfconscious (which actually doesn’t look bad, like that), I think I would first try recasting the sentence. I have nothing against 2 hyphens in 1 word, but it is definitely distracting, and if the recast version retains the exact meaning and flavor of the multi-hyphenated (multihyphenated?) one, I vote in favor of the recast version. This is, of course, just IMHO, and cannot replace the rules set forth in any of the various style guides that may be mandatory for use in someone’s job.

  4. JP Mercado says:

    Loved this post! I’m a big fan of hyphens for their aesthetic and practical reasons, but in the case of “unselfconscious”, I prefer the hyphen-less style. Splitting the word with one or two hyphens makes the word look awkward and unwieldy; the solid, one-word form looks better [to me, at least] and leaves no room for any doubts on its meaning.

    When it comes to the vowel combinations you mentioned, I tend to use hyphens too (“re-elect”, “de-interlace”, etc). The diaeresis looks cool but will definitely come off as really pretentious to some.

    [I enjoyed the Cracked-style captioned pictures, by the way. Haha!]


  5. John Cowan says:

    I think it’s Mark Twain who translates some supposed German sentence using the phrase ‘the on-the-other-side-of-the-river-lying mountains’.

  6. Stan says:

    Harry: That’s gratifying to hear, and surprising given the degree of difference in hyphenation styles and tastes. For what it’s worth, in another mood I might find unco- structures slightly absurd.

    David: Sorting out a set of hyphens can be an interesting puzzle for an editor! It also shows the value of a good editor – style guides/sheets can be very helpful in areas like this, and I expect you were working to one, but even so their guidelines can’t cover every case.

    sherry: That’s well put. Rephrasing often makes a line clearer and more natural sounding, and should be considered if it’s a valid option. It isn’t always, of course; an editor may be obliged or asked to interfere minimally with a writer’s style, quite aside from house style requirements, and this might nudge a decision back towards finding a multiple-hyphenation-based solution solution based on multiple hyphenation.

    JP: Thanks! I would hyphenate re-elect and de-interlace too, but I don’t object to the closed forms. My feelings about diaereses change with the seasons. The minimalist in me thinks the fewer such marks English has, the better, but at other times I like the spice they bring to a page of text.

    John: It could be. For some reason these extended modifiers appeal to me; I mentioned a couple of them in this post and have collected a few since. My favourite recent example is from Margaret Atwood’s book The Penelopiad:

    I then made the Is-this-all-the-thanks-I-get, you-have-no-idea-what-I’ve-been-through-for-your-sake, no-woman-should-have-to-put-up-with-this-sort-of-suffering, I-might-as-well-kill-myself speech.

    • David Morris says:

      There could be a rough analogy between law and style guides in that outline what the creators (parliament and editorial managers respectively expect people to do, but people will always find ways of behaving and writing, respectively, that just don’t conform to the law or style guide in question.

  7. rescatooor says:

    A quite useful text. Out of curiosity I had to investigate my Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, which simply stated: “There is no simple rule to help know which compounds and which do not”. Thank goodness my intuition hasn’t failed me so far.

  8. obzervashunal says:

    fantastic post! Thank you.

  9. PinkNoam says:

    Brilliant. I don’t know why I read this, but I did. The un-selfconscious (that’s how my brain can accept it written down) hyphen made me laugh out loud so thanks for that. :)

  10. Stan says:

    rescatooor: Of course, we don’t normally know how our intuition squares with what other people infer.

    obzervashunal: You’re welcome, and thanks for reading.

    PinkNoam: Glad you liked the silly picture. :-) You’re in good company preferring un-selfconscious, but there’s a lot of variation out there.

  11. languagehat says:

    Searched for Benbow, was not disappointed.

  12. wendon74 says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Rubber Boots and commented:

  13. ferniglab says:

    I may well be going mad, but it s quite pleasant, thank you!

  14. Stan says:

    Hat: I saved the best for last. It’s a classic quote.

    Stuart: Thank you!

    feriglab: To adapt an old line: Whom the gods love, they first make mad.

  15. […] Sentance First – Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens […]

  16. I agree. When e.g. lean-to shows how the name was derived, self-conscious and preconscious should surely follow the same pattern, but the online wordpress editor has hyphenated one for me but not the other.

  17. hmalapanis says:

    This was a great read! I’m with you on “unselfconscious.” (And so is my phone’s autocorrect, for what it’s worth.)

  18. Stan says:

    christianliving2014, thank you.

    Thanks, hmalapanis. It’s worth something that autocorrect is on Team Unselfconscious, given how much people rely on it.

  19. Mike says:

    Hi Stan,
    My take on hyphenation, probably drilled into me by my grammar school English teacher, used to be simple: hyphenation had to do with the class or set of nouns. Where many different nouns could be associated with a word, use the hyphen. So, self-conscious, money-conscious, dress-conscious, etc.
    But self-conscious is probably used many, many more times than any of the other combinations, as it is a sort of basic human trait, and so the hyphen tends to disappear. Not approved by my spell-checker!

    As the English language changes and unlikely nouns appear, so the situation changes.
    Do other languages have hyphens? I haven’t noticed them. The Mark Twain example given by John Cowan holds for good Swedish too. It seems that if we use a similar construction in English, the list of words has to be hyphenated.

    • Stan says:

      Some hyphens certainly tend to disappear, Mike. Reading old (or conservative) texts is a good reminder of words that were once routinely hyphenated, like to-morrow and teen-ager, but which now look quaint in that style. I’m not sure what to make of your teacher’s approach – hyphens are often associated with compound nouns, but they’re also used with verbs, adjectives, adverbs etc.

      • Mike says:

        Yes, I realised I forgot to mention, as you say, the verbs, etc.
        BTW, what about hyphens in the main European languages? French has them I know.
        It could well be that they exist in the others but I haven’t noticed them!

  20. languagehat says:

    Yes, I think all the major languages use them. Go to the Wikipedia article and run down the Languages list on the left, clicking on any that interest you; you’ll get plenty of examples from each.

  21. […] too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes. […]

  22. Ah, finally someone addresses this. I am meticulous about using hyphens in my writing, but since they’re so underused, I start to doubt myself and whether or not I’m using them appropriately. Like maybe I should have said “under-used.”

    • Stan says:

      I hope it was helpful, Amy. The best approach when you’re unsure about one is to check it in various dictionaries or style manuals: under-use doesn’t appear in any of the major ones but underuse is in Oxford Dictionaries, American Heritage Dictionary, and Collins.

  23. I agree with you 99%, Stan, but I have to demur on “non-life-threatening”. This is surely as easy to misunderstand as meaning “threatening to non-life” as “nonlife-threatening” is easy to misunderstand as meaning “threatening to nonlife”. I know it separates the prefix, but surely “non life-threatening” is the least ambiguous of all the possibilities?

    • Harry Lake says:

      I agree with your solution, but of course it does require one to countenance the use of ‘non’ w/o a hyphen. As with ‘mid’, I do, but I can understand those who don’t.

    • I am not sure about that “non” thing stranded there; maybe that’s OK these days. I vote to re-cast (recast?) the sentence. Instead of a “non-life-threatening injury,” it is an injury that is not life-threatening. Done.

    • Stan says:

      Martyn, Harry, I take the point, but I don’t think non-life-threatening is as open to misinterpretation as you say. We’re accustomed (and may also be primed by context) to thinking about things that are “life-threatening” or not. We’re not in the habit of thinking about “non-life” and what may threaten it; it isn’t even clear what this might mean. So when we see non-life-threatening I don’t think we’re equally likely to parse it as “threatening to non-life”: I suspect the intended sense comes naturally to most readers. And it avoids stranding a prefix – a style which, even if ultimately less ambiguous, is non-standard English.

      thebluebird11: Recasting the sentence is not always an option.

      • Harry Lake says:

        Hi Stan, you write ‘I don’t think non-life-threatening is as open to misinterpretation as you say’, but that certainly isn’t what I intended to say.Of course I agree that an open compound with ‘non’ is non-standard English, I still feel that by analogy with ‘mid’ (see NODWE) it is defensible and I wouldn’t mind putting a small bet on its being recognized by OUP in the next ten years for use when non attributive.

      • languagehat says:

        I wouldn’t mind putting a small bet on its being recognized by OUP in the next ten years for use when non attributive.

        I will take that bet. As a copyeditor who edits OUP books, I have every confidence in saying: not gonna happen.

      • Try me…I can’t imagine that there could be a sentence that couldn’t be recast somehow. It might be a bit longer (wordier), I guess, but…I believe it can be done.

      • Stan says:

        I imagine it’s theoretically possible to recast any given case, but some jobs require (or some writers request) minimal interference. Sometimes the original sentence structure must be preserved, so it’s best to have worked out the most sensible style for such forms as non(-)life(-)threatening, and not depend on avoiding it outright.

        • Yes, that’s true, and if you consult different references, you will get different rules on how to hyphenate. If you are allowed to use only ONE reference as your bible (say, for your job), then you have to go by that and do your best, taking into account not confusing the readers. Worst case scenario is that readers do a bit of a double-take now and then (nonlife? secondhand shop?); just keep it to a minimum.

  24. John Davies says:

    I think the lesson of all this is that as long as the result is readily understandable, hyphenating does not have to be logical. After all, logically it should be a “second-hand-book shop” rather than a “second-hand bookshop” as it’s the books rather than the shop that’s second-hand. But we all know what’s meant

  25. Stan says:

    Harry: I’d be surprised, but it will be worth looking out for any official sanction of the detached prefix.

    John: Good point, though it doesn’t make nonlife-threatening any more acceptable to my eyes.

  26. […] Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens […]

  27. […] See my post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens.) Of course, there are exceptions. Hyphens are omitted when the phrasal adjective begins with […]

  28. […] Hyphens are used routinely in phrasal adjectives (or ‘compound modifiers’) to tie the phrases together and increase clarity, thus two-day interval, wide-angle lens, little-ass car. Multiple hyphenation, though journalists are often suspicious of it, is a useful tool that enables distinctions: anti-social justice website ≠ anti-social-justice website. There are complications, but they’re non-life-threatening. […]

  29. […] that may already be hyphenated, things get erratic, as I detail in a post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens. Take hyphens seriously, one stylebook editor wrote, and ‘you will surely go […]

  30. […] Cronenberg on Cronenberg is a rich read for fans, giving the filmmaker space to elaborate on his work and the ideas it burrows into. (It also has a notable hyphen, which I discuss briefly in an update to my post on unselfconscious hyphenation.) […]

  31. […] also updated my post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens to assess the use of ‘unself-forgiving’ in Phipps’s […]

  32. […] is the exception. If you find yourself reading, as I did, a published story with murmured used unselfconsciously three times on one page, and again on the next, you begin to feel that the writer isn’t paying […]

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