The news reporter said, “The victim's injuries were non-life-threatening.” [Verbatim quote, so I cannot alter the wording to say "...were not life-threatening".]

Is non-life-threatening correctly punctuated with two hyphens as shown? Or should it be nonlife-threatening in this particular context?

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    I was about to recommend you to have a look on Google to see what people seem to use. After checking, I won't. The bound morpheme non is the negator for life-threatening here, so 'life-threatening' is more coherent. This does not come across with nonlife-threatening, which would seem to imply a threat to non-life. Leaving non stranded doesn't work either as it is a bound morpheme, a prefix not a word (in English). I'd use the two hyphens. Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 16:14
  • I searched Google Books and encountered a multiplicity of contradictions. I am in total agreement with you, Mr Ashworth (ie two hyphens). Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 16:21

2 Answers 2


The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (PDF), in paragraph 6.32 (page 120 of the file, which displays a page number of 103), says “Use a hyphen or hyphens … to avoid ambiguity.”, and gives “non-tumor-bearing tissue” and “non-civil-service position” as examples of correct hyphen usage.  “non-life-threatening injuries” seems to be consistent with those examples.


This is one case where it's onerous to look at dozens/hundreds of entries directly within Google Books, but it's relatively easy to see what most people do by looking at Google Ngrams...

Ngram showing "non-life-threatening" way ahead of alternatives

The pros and cons are covered perfectly well by Edwin's comment against the question, but with such a strong preference for "non-life-threatening" as indicated above, it's pretty obvious which one you should go for.

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    Restores one's faith in Ngrams. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 9:44
  • @Edwin: Yeah - it reflects what I would have expected, in that as you commented, non is very much a "bound morpheme". So those people who think two hyphens is a bit much are more likely to keep the first one rather than the second. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 14:21

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