The Grammarphobia Blog

Compound fractures

Q: You recently quoted a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary that uses the word “overtasking.” I initially read this as “overt-asking.” You’ve written before about how a compound often evolves from two separate words, to hyphenated words, to one word. But what about confusing compounds? Do they keep their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding?

A: Yes, some potentially confusing compounds do retain their hyphens to avoid misunderstanding, though “overtasking” isn’t generally considered one of them. Most of these puzzlers begin, or appear to begin, with prefixes.

The prefix “re-” is probably the biggest culprit here. For example, a hyphen can help a reader differentiate “re-creation” (making anew) from “recreation” (an enjoyable activity), and “re-sign” (sign again) from “resign” (quit).

Here are some other examples: “re-cover” (cover again) from “recover” (regain); “re-collect” (collect again) from “recollect” (remember); “re-form” (form again) from “reform” (change); “re-treat” (treat again) from “retreat” (go back).

Other prefixes can be confusing too. A hyphen in the adjective “multi-ply” (having several layers) distinguishes it from the verb “multiply.“ And before cooperative apartments became more common, hyphens were always used in “co-op” so it wasn’t mistaken for the “coop” that chickens live in.

We once wrote a blog entry that touches on confusion over the pronunciation of a word that could perhaps use a hyphen: “biopic” (a film biography).

No, the prefix “bi-“ isn’t there, but the eye might think it is. Maybe “biopic” should have a hyphen after “bio” so it’s not interpreted as “bi-opic,” which sounds like a word for double vision.

Familiar phrases can mislead us too. At a glance, the eye might read the phrase “a fine toothbrush” as “a fine-tooth brush.”

And a writer might want to distinguish between a “small businessman” and a “small-business man,” though we’d probably avoid the confusion by referring to the little guy as a short businessman.

We could give you more examples, but you get the idea. The presence or absence of a hyphen can make a difference, so both writer and reader need to pay attention.

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