English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I've done a fair amount of research (like here), but I can't find any examples of hyphen rules with "auto". Microsoft Word doesn't take "autopopulate", but will accept either auto-populate or auto populate.

What I read about prefixes is that they shouldn't be hyphenated, but MS Word disagrees with this one. Unless auto isn't really a prefix at all, but I do take it to be.

Right now I'm thinking that auto doesn't usually work by itself unless you're talking about a car.

Does anybody have any authoritative word or grammatical insight?

share|improve this question
The auto- in autopopulate is definitely a prefix, whatever the preferred spelling; spelling can often be misleading. – Kosmonaut Dec 29 '10 at 21:16
You can't live your life in fear of Microsoft Word's (or anybody's, for that matter) spellchecker or grammar checker. They're tools, not divine authorities. For example, Firefox allows spellchecker but not grammarchecker. Why? Because spellchecker has been around long enough? Maybe, but at some point in the past it probably got flagged (maybe before there were spellcheckers). If you want to use autopopulate your meaning will be understood and you won't look dumb — except perhaps to MS Word. – Robusto Dec 29 '10 at 21:58
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Whether or not prefixes are hyphenated depends a lot on which prefix it is. In general, newly coined prefixes or neologisms are likely to take a hyphen, while established vocabulary tends to lose the hyphen. There are no absolute rules, though.

That being said:

  • autopopulate is probably wrong, since the use of the prefix auto- in this sense is very recent.
  • auto populate is also wrong, since verbal compounds are never written separately
  • auto-populate is probably the preferred answer
share|improve this answer
I agree with your generalizations in the first paragraph, but I don't think it follows that autopopulate is probably wrong. You could fairly conclude that the more conservative auto-populate is a safer choice, but lots of words are coined and immediately have no hyphen, and they aren't considered wrong at any point. – Kosmonaut Dec 29 '10 at 21:09
@Kosmo, I believe words that are coined w/o any hyphen are generally based on long-established native prefixes, not relative newcomers like auto. But I could be wrong--do you have counterexamples? – JSBձոգչ Dec 29 '10 at 21:19
@JSBangs: As I said, I agree; I think that this is generally true. I just don't think you can use the generalization — which you rightly say is not absolute — to conclude an individual spelling is wrong. It's only a tendency. Counterexamples: autopilot, autofocus, autoland, autodialer. – Kosmonaut Dec 29 '10 at 22:07
@Kosmo, those are good counterexamples. – JSBձոգչ Dec 29 '10 at 22:20
@JSBangs, thanks. I was actually considering auto populate, so that was very helpful. I think I will go with auto-populate. – jtpereyda Dec 29 '10 at 22:32

"Auto populate", with two parts dangling separately, is weird.

Now, the Oxford Reference dictionary gives autointoxication (in one word only, despite the hiatus), whilst the spellchecker of Stack Exchange admits the word only with an hyphen, but auto-suggestion (only with an hyphen).

What all this fuss is about ? Take advantage of the suppleness of the language : the meaning of either autopopulate or auto-populate is perfectly clear, whatever the spelling.

By dint of ukases, l'Académie Française has just put French into straitjackets. Not an example to follow.

Do not edict useless rules !

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.