JS Tip 92: From the Writing Workshops: Combining Words (Part One)

Barbie Bub asks, “What are the rules around hyphenation? No, not when a bear beds down for the winter, but rather when using certain prefixes. Like ‘non’ or ‘bi.’ Is one noncompliant or non-compliant? Was Jerry Garcia a nonconformist or a non-conformist? Do you have a biannual meeting or a bi-annual meeting?”

We like the bit about “when a bear beds down for the winter.” That’s funny. 

Our answer to the question:

Combine the prefixes and the words when the combining doesn’t obscure the meaning. Use noncompliant. Use nonconformist. Use biannual.

Sometimes, though, combining the prefixes and the words will confuse your reader. Suppose the Medfield College football coach renews his contract with the school. Consider the newspaper headlines:

            Medfield Coach Re-signs Contract

            Medfield Coach Resigns Contract

Whoa. In the first headline, he renews his contract; in the second, he leaves the school. (You could avoid the confusion by rewriting the sentence: “Medfield Coach Renews Contract.”)

A Separate Subject. A Separate Caution. “Biannual” can confuse people. Does it mean twice a year or every two years? Avoid the confusion by rewriting the sentence: “We’ll meet every six months” or “We’ll meet every two years.”

If you have questions, let us know. We love this stuff.   

Next week: More of your questions. When do we combine—or not combine—words like “anytime” or “any time”?

Trivia question: Who taught at Medfield College?