The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, September 24, 2021

Are you hyphen-hesitant?

At a recent webinar on EAP vocab, the topic of prefixes had come up and someone asked me the best way to teach students about when to hyphenate words with prefixes.

My first answer – which I wasn’t quick enough to give at the time – is I’d tell them to really not worry about it!

My second answer – and the one which I gave – is if they’re not sure, check in a dictionary. Although, to be honest, good luck with that …

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of my time researching prefixed words and one of the things I’ve been checking is which are typically hyphenated and which are closed (no hyphen). And the results are really messy. It seems that a corpus search for almost any prefixed word will throw up a mix of both options.

Dictionaries: Dictionaries seem to vary a bit in their approach to showing prefixed words. Most though show the most frequent spelling as the headword, then the other alternative as a variant.


Although of course, different dictionaries use different corpora and will come up with different balances of hyphenated/closed examples. So, if you look up the same word in several dictionaries, don’t be surprised if you find different answers.

Some trends: Although it’s an area where there aren’t firm rules, there are a few tendencies:

Fixedness: Typically, newly created prefixed words tend to start off with a hyphen – perhaps to make the original root word clearer and the novelty less confusing. Then over time, as the combination becomes more familiar and fixed, the hyphen often gets dropped – think e-mail > email, on-line > online.

US vs UK: Also as a general rule of thumb, Brits tend to use more hyphens than Americans.

Double vowels: Where a prefix ends in a vowel and the root word starts with a vowel, hyphens are more common to avoid possible confusion over the pronunciation of the double vowel sound. So, co-opt is quite clearly /kəʊˈɒpt/ (two separate O sounds) whereas coopt not only looks a bit weird, but could potentially be pronounced /kuːpt/!

Looking at a few random corpus examples of prefixed words with double vowels, it’s clear that there are a mix of factors in play. The mispronouncability of the closed compound may be one – try antiageing without a hyphen. And some more familiar, fixed combinations, like preempt and preamble, are less likely to be hyphenated compared with more novel ones that err towards a hyphen – semiindependent is clearly a step too far for most people!

Note: All my corpus stats here are very rough and ready – this isn’t a careful academic analysis – but I think they probably represent the general trends. With this kind of thing, you also need to bear in mind all kinds of different factors, like the influence of style guides – so, for example, a major publisher or media group might decide at a certain point to shift from using e-mail to email and that could have quite an impact on corpus stats. As ever, language gets pushed and pulled by all kinds of sometimes mysterious forces!

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Thursday, September 02, 2021

Post-lockdown Coronavocab: pre-booking & walk-ups

This sign outside a local museum recently caught my eye because it contains interesting examples of two word types I’ve been working with lately; prefixes (pre-booked) and phrasal verbs/derived nouns (walk-ups). They also seem to reflect something of the new normal, in the UK at least, at the moment.

Sign outside a museum saying: Pre-booked tickets holders please queue this way (arrow). Walk-ups please queue along the window (arrow)


This is one for the pedants out there! Because, of course, if you book something, you reserve it or buy your ticket in advance. So, what then is pre-booking? The pre- seems like a somewhat unnecessary prefix. And the difference between booking and pre-booking does seem to be a subtle one. Pre-booking simply emphasizes how far in advance you book. It can describe a situation where you can reserve something before it’s officially available to buy. It can just signify the need to book something well ahead rather than leaving it to the last minute and potentially losing out. And in this case, it emphasizes the idea that people need to book their tickets, probably online, ahead of arriving at the venue to avoid crowds of people queuing up.

Until quite recently, in the UK, almost anywhere you visited - a museum, exhibition, garden, restaurant and even most train tickets – had to be booked in advance and typically for a specific time slot in order to help venues to control the number of customers and avoid crowds of people. According to Merriam-Webster, prebook was first used back in 1855, but there does seem to be evidence that it’s seen a spike in usage in the past year (not sure what the spike in 2014 was down to).

Graph showing the usage trend for prebook from 2014 to 2020. Quite high in 2014, then dropping down and staying level for 2015-2019 and rising sharply in 2020


As regulations relax here, however, more places are starting to accept walk-ups; customers who arrive on the day without a booking.

Interestingly, this sense of walk-up doesn’t seem to feature in most dictionaries. Most list the US sense to refer to a multi-floor building without a lift/elevator where you literally have to walk up the stairs. M-W also has a sense “designed to allow pedestrians to be served without entering a building” as in a walk-up coffee counter, also a common feature of pandemic life where anything designed to keep people outdoors has flourished.

A window of a coffee shop through which customers can be served
The walk-up counter at a local coffee shop

Corpus data shows that the ‘customer arriving on spec’ sense has been around for a while, although the inverted commas around the first example perhaps hint at the term’s origins as trade jargon rather than common everyday usage:

Box showing corpus examples for walk-up 2014-2019: The ticket was purchased the day before her departure, inaurline parlance, a "walk-up" fare, which is generally the expensive kind. We recommend making reservations online in advance, as there is often limited walk-up availability. Free registration will be on a walk-up basis on the day of the event. The center can take walk-ups but you're encourgade to pre-apply on-line.

There has very clearly though been a significant jump in usage, which I suspect is less about this being a new term than the fact that, in a time of changing rules and norms, we have more need to differentiate between customers who pre-book and those who arrive on spec, and more clarity over what’s possible. [Note the stats here are for all senses of walk-up.]

Graph showing usage of walk-up from 2014-2020. The line is fairly flat from 2014-2019 and shows a udden peak in 2020.

Interestingly, the 2020-21 data shows lots of walk-up Covid testing sites, but also starts to hint at the opening-up of other venues to casual custom.

Box showing corpus examples for walk-up 2020-2021. If you attend a walk-up testing location in Winnipeg, you will encounter an outdoor queue. There is a walk-up testing site at the former Aldi car park in Rhymney. Click and collect has formed a major part of our business instead of walk-up trade. Customers are encouraged to book in advance; however, walk-ups will also be welcome.


And just when I thought this post was ready to go, I headed out for a walk to take photos of a couple of local walk-up coffee counters and … 1 I found one of my favourite coffee shops has moved its counter indoors – another sign of changing times, but still great coffee – 2 I came across several signs for walk-ins … So, I scurried back to my corpus to check it out.

Photo of a sign saying: Beer Garden open. Walk-ins welcome
A sign outside a local bar

Sign in a window saying: walk-ins
And in the window of a barbers

Again, this is polysemous with its most common use as an adjective to describe large storage spaces – walk-in wardrobes/closets/freezers. I also found several dictionary entries for both the adjective and noun forms to refer to (places that accept) customers who arrive without a booking – most labelled as (mainly) US. The corpus data I looked at for walk-in suggested a more even US/UK/other split than for walk-up (which was quite US-heavy) and it also showed an upward trend in 2020 (again for all uses), although slightly less pronounced.

Graph showing usage of walk-in from 2014-2020. Line is fairly steady 2014-2019 and rises in 2020

Box showing corpus examples for walk-in: It had stopped accepting walk-ins, reduced seating in lobbies ... According to ... that meant no walk-in, drive-through or home tests available for people in Bolton. Appointments have replaced walk-ins. Vaccinations at all sites are done by scheduled appointment only with no walk-ins. However, it does have five tables outside at the front for walk-ins, which are weather dependent.

I don’t know about you, but it was the final example above that really typified my recent experience of either not going out because it’s too much of a nuisance to get a booking or of shivering outside in a not-very-summery British summer!

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