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"Post-Truth" & Hyphenation with Prefixes

January 10, 2017

A dictionary's Word of the Year reflects the general mood of a nation since it is chosen based on spikes in lookups. After many 2016 events with unexpected outcomes such as Brexit and the US election, it's perhaps not surprising that Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year was "surreal" and Oxford Dictionaries' was "post-truth." Oxford Dictionaries defines post-truth as an adjective that means "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." (We recently addressed this phenomenon in our new lesson on Fake News!)

The word post-truth also got our team here at ESL Library thinking about the hyphenation of words with prefixes. When dictionaries disagree on whether or not to hyphenate such words, what do we use in our materials? What's best for our students?

To Hyphenate or Not?

Since we have subscribers from all over the world, following a certain dictionary has always been problematic. With the majority of our customers being from the United States, our default spelling system is American English and we mostly follow Merriam-Webster. We have a Canadian version of most of our lessons, and for that we follow Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English (not available online, unfortunately). We also include a spelling note in the answer keys of our US lessons noting the British English differences in each lesson—for that, we follow Oxford Dictionaries.

We've noticed that Merriam-Webster tends to follow the modern trend of dropping hyphens and closing up words. For example, they have entries such as reelection, prebake, and nonnegotiable. They don't have an entry for posttruth, but they have similar entries for -post including postdebate, postseason, and posttreatmentOxford Dictionaries, while dropping the hyphen in more words nowadays than in previous years, still retain the hyphen in many words. They have entries for re-election, pre-baked, non-negotiable, and, of course, post-truth.

What have we chosen to do here at ESL Library? For words with prefixes, we've chosen to keep the hyphen. We feel this helps students see and break down the parts of the word easily, which can lead to a better understanding of a word's meaning. For instance, students might have learned that re- means again, so if they see the word re-elect they would immediately know that the meaning of again is involved. If they see it as reelect it could be harder to catch. In re-elect, with the hyphen, the root word elect is clearly visible as well. They might already know that word or be able to quickly look up or ask about that portion.

The day when most reputable dictionaries no longer keep a hyphen in a particular word is the day that we will also drop it. We don't want to do students a disservice by presenting words in a form that's not common. Words such as coworker and redo are no longer seen with the hyphen in major dictionaries, so we've also dropped it.

How do you deal with different spelling or punctuation systems in class?


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Comments (2)

Carol H.(Teacher)

Thank you for providing such thought-provoking lessons which focus on what's actually happening in our world. My adult, politically aware Italian students are very motivated by lessons such as Fake News, Post-truth.
As a teacher, I find the lessons not only interesting content-wise, but
also excellent for practicing the many skills involved in mastering the English language.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you for your kind words, Carol! We're very happy to hear you and your students enjoy our lessons. We agree that events happening in the real world make for more relevant, interesting lessons, and fake news sure is timely at the moment.

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