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Google's dictionary lists it as "un-American" or "unAmerican" (which looks clumsy to me). Since American is a "demonym," I would usually capitalize it, so I feel compelled to capitalize "un-American" somehow. How should I capitalize "un-American" and words like it?

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Wordnik scrounges up example usages for all five of these variants: unamerican, unAmerican, Unamerican, un-American, and un-american. Some have corresponding dictionary entries, some don't. I'm not sure there's going to be a set answer on how one "should" do it. – J.R. Sep 23 '13 at 0:26
Indeed. Different style/grammar guides say different things. says "Hyphenate prefixes when they come before proper nouns. Example: un-American" but as snailboat points out, there are plenty of options. You may find it useful to find a guide that you like (taking into account whether you want American or British English conventions) and refer to it for such questions, then at least you know you are adhering to a consistent style. – nxx Jan 20 '14 at 17:52

1 Answer 1

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I decided to search for three forms on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Here's what I found:

  • First, I searched for un-american. This search was not case-sensitive. There were 560 results, and in 560/560, the 'A' in un-American was capitalized. (Well, 559/560, but when I checked the actual source of the odd result out, it turned out to be an error. The 'A' was capitalized in the original.)

  • Next, I searched for unamerican. Again, this was not case-sensitive. This search had only 31 results. Of these, 27/31 capitalized the 'A'. Of the remaining four, I was only able to verify that one actually used the lowercase 'a' in print. (The other sources weren't immediately accessible, but it didn't seem particularly important, so I didn't bother tracking them down.)

  • Last, I searched for un american. This had only 7 results, and at least two appeared to be OCR errors. I didn't investigate all 7, again deciding it wasn't important enough to bother with.

So it looks like you're right―you probably should capitalize the 'A'. It also looks like there's a strong preference for un-American over unAmerican, so if you want to stick with convention, that's how you should write it, too.

When you apply the prefix un- to a word, two spellings are usually possible: with and without a hyphen. And over time, spellings tend toward the latter. But this word has been around for quite a while, and the hyphen spelling is still going strong! The OED dates un-American back to 1818, and it's certainly been in regular use at least since the 1930s, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was established. So it certainly seems like in this particular case the word has resisted losing its hyphen over time. I can make two guesses as to why:

  1. It's part of the canonical spelling of the aforementioned HUAC. Since this is one of the primary uses of the term, it may reinforce the spelling each time it's named.
  2. There's pressure to capitalize the 'A' in American, but English orthography has relatively few words with only a non-initial capital letter, and most of those are relatively recent (e.g. iPhone). This is probably why you think it looks "clumsy".

Checking COCA for un-british (13) versus unbritish (1), un-french (6) versus unfrench (0), un-japanese (12) versus unjapanese (1), I found a more general pattern, apparently ruling out explanation #1. (Recall that these searches are case-insensitive.) When you apply the prefix un- to a word that's usually capitalized, it seems that it's usually (but not always) spelled with a hyphen. So I suppose explanation #2 is the best I've got: the orthography resists spellings with only a non-initial capital letter.

In any case, since there's a clear convention and you dislike the alternative, you might as well do what most people do: write un-American.

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