Un-user-friendly hyphenation

In the phrase a user-friendly website, few would argue against the hyphen. It clarifies. You could get away with a user friendly website, because user friendly is a familiar term and there is little chance of ambiguity (though hyphen devotees may call you a monster anyway). But the hyphen is conventional.

Things get more complex when the phrasal adjective gets more complex. It’s a non-profit-making group, with two hyphens, not a non-profit making group or a non profit-making group or a non profit making group – though many writers are strangely suspicious of multiple hyphenation.

But one rule does not fit all compounds. When a prefix such as non- or un- is added to an item 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 mad’.

A further complication: In some semantic niches, we have yet to settle on a default phrase, so there are variants, variously hyphenated, competing for popularity and status – though we can get a sense of emerging preferences from corpus data, as I show below.

What, for instance, is the opposite of a user-friendly website? I’m not interested here in synonyms like awkwarddifficult, or unintuitive – only in compound modifiers based on negating user-friendly.

Fill in the blank: It’s a/an _______ website.

There are a few options: un-user-friendly, non-user-friendly, user-unfriendly, or, cheating a little, something along the lines of user-hostile. I got to thinking about this when I read Francis Spufford’s enjoyable book Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, which contains the following passage (underlines added):

The company allowed researchers to download a free ration of 500,000 bases of human sequence per week. It sounded generous, until you worked out that, at that rate, it was going to take 120 years to view the whole genome. To get the ration, you had to negotiate a deliberately un-user-friendly website and then click on a button accepting the company’s rights over the data.

Un-user-friendly struck me as unwieldy and a touch unsightly compared with the single-hyphen alternatives. Even non-user-friendly seems preferable, since non- often takes a hyphen whereas un- tends to form solid words. (Indeed, non commonly floats free in unedited prose and may be gradually going the way of mid.)

To see which of these modifiers are being used in this semantic space (and again ignoring words like awkward), I looked up un-user-friendly, non-user-friendly, user-hostile, and user-unfriendly in five of Mark Davies’s language corpora: COCA (560 million words, 1990–2017), Wikipedia (1.9 billion, 2014), GloWbE (1.9 billion, 2012–13), NOW (8.2 billion, 2010–19), and iWeb (14 billion, 2017).

The results:






























The results reflect the corpora’s relative size and recency. COCA and Wikipedia have too few hits to be much use, but the figures from GloWbE, NOW, and iWeb point to a clear if incipient preference for the single-hyphen options user-unfriendly and user-hostile.

These are not precise synonyms, either: user-hostile is further along the scale of user-unfriendliness than user-unfriendly. And some readers may place user-unfriendly differently on that scale from un-user-friendly or non-user-friendly.

If you want my advice, don’t use un-user-friendly – it looks odd and ungainly, and the numbers are against it. Non-user-friendly is better, but it’s still a bit cumbersome and is unlikely to gain ground on user-unfriendly and user-hostile.

What are your thoughts and preferences?

32 Responses to Un-user-friendly hyphenation

  1. Non-user-friendly feels like what I’ve heard/seen the most, and it seems to me the option most likely to be used in speech. I think its main virtue is its closeness to the phrase, “It’s not user friendly.” However, I think “user-hostile” is likely to catch on for those cases that are “further along the scale,” as you say.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good point. Some of the corpus examples were quoted speech, but I didn’t count these systematically. I’d be much more likely to say non-user-friendly than to write it, because in speech its inelegance doesn’t feature. But I would favour it only in some contexts: ‘a very user-unfriendly X’ rolls off easier than ‘a very non-user-friendly X’, for example.

  2. John Cowan says:

    How about un–user-friendly or non–user-friendly, with an en dash marking the top-level division? Probably too subtle.

    In practice I would always say and write user-hostile.

  3. Virginia Simmon says:

    My problem with non-user-friendly (besides the double hyphenation, which I usually try to avoid with rewriting) is that it could be read as “friendly to non-users” — unlikely, sure, but still … I really like your two-word phrases, particularly “user-unfriendly.” Merriam-Webster has done away with loads of hyphens in “non” phrases (e.g., “nonprofit” and, in fact, “nonuser”), but in “non-user-friendly” that isn’t possible. I will occasionally recommend the Chicago Style en dash that John Cowan suggested, but I agree that in this case, it might be awkward.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true about the possible misreading, and in certain phrases the chances of ambiguity would be considerably higher than in non-user-friendly. Another mark against it.

  4. I don’t see the en dash–hyphen hybrid option in Chicago 6.80, only an en dash joining two already hyphenated terms to create a longer compound modifier.

    It does say this:
    “A single word or prefix should be joined to a hyphenated compound by another hyphen rather than an en dash; if the result is awkward, reword.”
    non-English-speaking peoples

  5. Philip Cummings says:

    A user-uffish site? Not serious, just thought we needed a bot of Lewis Carroll in the mix.

  6. SHERRY ROTH says:

    I think that “user-unfriendly” is the least cumbersome, the least cluttered, and the most direct opposite of user-friendly. It also echoes what people already say, for example on social media, when you unfriend someone (un-friend?). “User-hostile” implies that the web site (or device, or whatever), is nearly non-navigable or unusable.

    That being said, it might be better to avoid the construction completely and just say “not user-friendly” or something similar.

    Along the same lines, my impression was that “nonprofit” had no hyphen, but “nonprofit-making” looks a bit funny (as if you’re making a nonprofit, which might be the case sometimes, but not always). So again, might be best to find a way to avoid that construction. I think you can probably get away, these days, with just saying “a nonprofit” (or non-profit), because the concept of “group” is implied/understood. A nonprofit (non-profit) IS a group…just my two cents.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, sometimes a workaround would be better. But it won’t always be possible or desirable, so we need a go-to phrase (or phrases) for this idea anyway. I agree about user-unfriendly, though I can see myself also using non-user-friendly and user-hostile on occasion. Un-user-friendly is the only one I reject outright in my own usage.

      US English normally skips the hyphen in nonprofit, but UK English often still includes it – and this can vary depending on whether it’s a noun or an adjective.

  7. SHERRY ROTH says:

    Maybe we don’t have to preserve the word “friendly.” I guess it might depend on exactly what is “not user friendly.” It could be user-lousy? User-miserable? User-cheesy? There are more words where these came from, some expanding on the 4-letter variety, but I’ll keep this, um, family-friendly.

  8. eomot says:

    I’m appalled by the suggestion that non-user-friendly means the same as user-unfriendly. To me it’s quite clear that calling a site a non-user-friendly site means that the site is friendly to non-users, and says absolutely nothing about whether the site is or is not friendly to users. Also, “un-user-friendly” introduces the strange concept of an “un-user”, and I haven’t a clue what an “un-user” is, so I have no idea what it means to say that a site is friendly to whatever an un-user might be.

    I suspect that the low score for non-user-friendly is the natural result of people understanding that non- is linked to the next component, ie hyphens take as soon as they have a right-hand argument, so that word1-word2-word3 always means (word1-word2)-word3, and never means word1-(word2-word3). And the even lower score for un-user-frendly is because that same parsing of the compound word relies on a meaning for “un-user” which could only come from a verb “unuse” whic doesn’t exist in the English language.

    • Stan Carey says:

      ‘Non-user-friendly’ can mean ‘not user-friendly’, and it can also mean ‘friendly to non-users’. In other words, it’s ambiguous, at least when taken out of context. I suspect that most people lean towards the first interpretation, because it’s more intuitive – whatever about logic.

      People’s understanding of hyphens often does not override semantic and pragmatic concerns: quite the contrary. If it did, we would not see non-life-threatening and similar phrases in common use.

  9. I like this discussion and am linking to it on my blog. “User-unfriendly” sounds best to my ear. I hear in it a touch of wit, a quick negation of the more familiar term.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true, Michael: the word takes an unexpected turn, which could be seen to suit the sense in a way. Thanks for the link; I enjoyed reading the comments on this at Orange Crate Art.

  10. bevrowe says:

    The core problem is that noun phrases in English are so frequently ambiguous, particularly if attributive nouns are involved. This is perhaps the most profound flaw in the language.

    But it is interesting how rarely one notices the ambiguity, even if one is as word conscious as most of your readers probably are.

    We have a local pharmacist who list their services in the window with a series of three-word phrases. All are logically ambiguous (eg ‘unwanted medicine service’) and none are hyphenated, yet you can scan the whole list without noticing any of this.

    And sometimes there is a syntactic ambiguity but not a semantic one. I frequently pass the offices of the British Transport Police. You could ay that there are three way of hyphenating this but all three would describe to the same body.

    What happens about all this in French, for example, where attributive nouns are not usual?

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true about the frequency of ambiguity. And it probably explains, at least in part, copy-editors’ appalled reaction to the AP’s recent announcement that many hyphens in compound modifiers are unnecessary – even though this was not new guidance. (There is similar advice in the Chicago Manual of Style, fwiw.)

      Maybe it’s my editor’s/proofreader’s brain, but I’m fairly sure I would notice the potential to misread such phrases as ‘unwanted medicine service’. I’m so thoroughly in the habit of checking such items for ambiguity that it’s almost automatic.

      • bevrowe says:

        I saw a sign on a shop today which had everything: an NP qualifying another NP which contained an attributive noun qualifying two nouns linked by ‘and’.

        University approved thesis printing and binding.

        How should this be hyphenated!?

  11. One result in iWeb for “user-antagonistic”. No results anywhere else.

  12. I don’t think that unfriendly is a synonym of antagonistic. You can ignore someone and be construed as unfriendly, but to go on the offense and deliberately antagonize someone, is different. So unless a web site (or product) is deliberately set up to prevent people from using it, I wouldn’t use antagonistic.

    • Could say the same about hostile. But in context, the opposite of a user friendly website is one that is unnecessarily difficult to use, not one that simply does nothing. Doesn’t have to be deliberate.

  13. I just saw a commercial with the line “My HR app is user-unfriendly.”

  14. Ellen K. says:

    Seems to me “non-profit-making” is ambiguous. It’s it something that makes nonprofits? (That is, helps to create nonprofit organizations.) Or is it something that isn’t profit-making? Thus, it needs either one of the hyphens gone, or rewording to remove the ambiguity. Of course, sometimes context will clarify.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s ambiguous in theory but not, I think, in practice. I’ve seldom if ever seen it used to mean ‘making non-profits’, so the potential for ambiguity is negligible.

      • bevrowe says:

        My reaction to this was to go further and say that non-profit was not even acceptable English. But to my surprise the OED has a 500-word entry, with quotations going back to 1859

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