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The power of a hyphen

Let's say your boss emails you and asks what you plan to with a contract that would continue your employment in the job you love. You reply that you're planning to resign. Your boss then replies that he's sorry to see you go.

Wait, what?

You love your job and have no desire to quit, so why does your boss think you want to leave? Blame the hyphen, or, in your case, the lack of a hyphen.

This topic came up in last week's That's What They Say lightning round. We were talking about how even though we know "readjust" doesn't have a hyphen, it's hard not to read it as "read" and "just" squished together. We decided we should take a look at the prefix "re" and its relationship with the hyphen.

As a prefix, "re" has a couple of different meanings. It can mean "back" as in "rebound" or "recall," which were borrowed in from Latin. It can also mean "again" or "anew." This latter meaning is the one "re" takes when we use it to create new words in English.

You'll also find "re" in certain words borrowed in from French where "re" is simply part of the word. That includes words like "remember," "reveal," and "resign."

When using "re," there are times when we need to disambiguate. With a word like "resign," all style guides will say there needs to be a hyphen if you're talking about signing something again, such as the contract your boss asked you about. Otherwise, it's impossible to tell the difference between "re-signing" and "resigning."

All style guides agree that they words like "re-cover," "re-sent," and "re-collect" need hyphens to avoid confusion with their identically-spelled counterparts. Where style guides start to disagree is what to do when a prefix that ends in a vowel is attached to a word that starts with a vowel.

In general, British style guides will tell you always use a hyphen in this case, as in "re-elect," "anti-intellectual," "re-adjust." However, most American style guides will also say to use a hyphen when the prefix ends in a vowel and the next word starts with a vowel, unless the vowel is "e." In that case, leave the hyphen out.

Interestingly, for a long time the Associated Press Stylebook was in agreement with British style guides on using a hyphen even if the second vowel was "e." However, in 2019 the editors changed their minds and decided to go with the typical American convention of leaving out the hyphen in double-e combinations such as "reelect" and "preexisting."

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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