Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Hyphens- part 4: separating identical letters

with 5 comments

Image by mag3737 via Flickr

In the UK, some words are hyphenated to separate two identical letters. For example:

  • co-opt
  • coat-tails
  • pre-empt
  • pre-eminent

However, in the UK:

Co-ordinate’ can be ‘coordinate’.

Co-operate’ can be ‘cooperate’.

Choose which you prefer — but don’t swap between the different versions in your writing.

Americans are much less fond of hyphens than the Brits, and all of the above words do not take a hyphen in US English, except ‘co-opt’.

Note that some words do not take a hyphen to separate identical letters, for example:

  • override
  • overripe
  • overrun
  • overreach
  • overrule
  • underrate
  • withhold

Consistency and logic are not words that spring to mind when it comes to hyphens. There’s only one answer if you’re not sure: check in a dictionary.

Sometimes dictionaries will vary. My Collins English Dictionary tells me that ‘book-keeping’ is hyphenated; my Oxford Dictionary of English tells me that it isn’t. In such cases, select which you would like to use (following any house style that applies to you) and be consistent.

Hyphens to help avoid confusion

Hyphens and numbers

Hyphens and compass points

Hyphens and compound nouns

Hyphens and compound adjectives

Hyphens and ‘un’ words

Find more user-friendly info on punctuation


5 Responses

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  1. THe full Oxford English Dictionary gives book-keep, book-keeper and book-keeping only with hyphen. There is no doubt that the US reluctance to use hyphens makes certain words and phrases more difficult to read instantly, even for Americans.


    04/03/2010 at 5:49 pm

    • Hello, Dai — thanks for that information about how ‘book-keeping’ etc is listed in the OED. I agree that some words are much clearer with hyphens, including those such as ‘book-keeper’.


      04/03/2010 at 7:44 pm

  2. US culture is built on unity, not division. We therefore seek to preempt hyphenism wherever we spot it.

    Michael Farrell

    05/03/2010 at 4:43 am

  3. As usual, I am struck by the fact that considering punctuation rules — in addition to being interesting and useful — can be enjoyable, if one is of a mind to be playful 🙂

    Maggie Manning

    05/03/2010 at 3:03 pm

    • Hi, Maggie — yes, I’m always conscious that all this grammar and punctuation stuff can be a bit dry. A touch of humour goes a long way. Laughter is the Champagne of life, as one our British actresses, Beryl Reid, used to say. I’ll drink to that.


      05/03/2010 at 7:06 pm

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