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Hey non non- nonnio

For once—mark this, youngsters, Mr. John is being kind, or close to it—I find no fault with the Associated Press Stylebook. Its entry on non- is relatively straightforward:

non- The rules of prefixes apply, but in general [emphasis added] no hyphen when forming a compound that does not have a special meaning and can be understood if not is used before the base word. Use a hyphen, however, before proper nouns or in awkward combinations, [emphasis added] such as non-nuclear.

Oddly, some copy editors appear to have registered no hyphen when forming a compound, fixated on it, and blanked out the rest. It may have something to do with the regrettable tendency within the craft to prefer Rules, however illusory, to judgment, however variable. But AP makes it unmistakable that judgment is to be exercised.

I’ve ridiculed nonlife-threatening in the past and have apparently broken the staff at The Sun of threatening nonlife. Sometimes they even lapse into English and write that “injuries were not life-threatening.” But the other day I saw someone identified in edited copy as a nonpresident.

Maybe I’m wrong about their misinterpreting the stylebook. Maybe they just think that part of the cutbacks is a rationing of hyphens.

Anyhow, whatever dictionary you happen to use should have an extensive display of non- compounds, some hyphenated and many not. You can look things up or not, depending on whether you have the time, but here is a little guideline for non- compounds: If it looks odd without a hyphen, or you think the reader might stumble over it, put a hyphen in. Even if the dictionary shows it as solid. It’s less likely to be distracting with the hyphen than without.

If you’re not non compos, you should be able to handle that.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:17 AM | | Comments (8)


Yes. Thinking first of what helps the reader is as close as I have to a rule.

My favorite such example, which probably comes up in my job more than in yours, is "nonkey" for, of course, "non-key."

Both nonlife-threatening and non-life-threatening seem awkward to me. Either way, my brain stops to ask "What, exactly, does that really mean?" In a quote I'd go for the second, of course, but otherwise I'd look hard for a way to use "not life threatening."

Excessive reliance on rules is, I think, a great way to hasten the end of copy-editing jobs. A strict set of rules can be transformed into software. Judgment can not.

Incidentally, this may be the least effective SEO headline I have ever written.

>"this may be the least effective SEO headline I have ever written."

But you'll definitely have a lock on traffic from people looking for negation in the works of Shakespeare.

Lots of nonpresidents out there right now.

not being non compos, I'm wondering if one ought not set off a borrowed latin phrase in some way?

I considered that, but Webster's New World, the nearest dictionary at hand, lists "non compos mentis" just as it does all English words, indicating that it has been naturalized by long adoption.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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