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Is there a rule on when under and over are used as prefixes rather than adverbs when attached to past participles (and whether or not they are hyphenated)?

In general, it seems that both words are sufficient as adverbs, e.g., "this paper is under cited." However, we often see under and over attached as a prefix, e.g., "this paper is under-cited." In addition there are certain words where under/over are "built-in", e.g., "this company is understaffed." Is this simply a matter of convention or are there clearer rules on how the words should be paired? Are there differences in meaning when under is used as an adverb rather than a prefix (e.g., does "under cited" mean something different than "under-cited")?

  • ‘Under cited’ would be considered an error by most. To me, it is two words and means the same as ‘underneath cited’ or ‘beneath cited’—i.e., very little at all. Whether to write under-cited or undercited … well, hyphenation in English is a mess. Go with the most common form, or the first form to appear in your dictionary of choice, knowing that at least you’re in good company. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 23 '14 at 22:14
  • There's nothing special with respect to under/over -- for the general case of the hyphen, see related questions on this site. – Kris Jul 24 '14 at 5:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I don't think I get the same reading. When under and over are used to mean not enough or too much I think they are usually hyphenated. When they are special prepositions I don't think they are, they are separate words. Maybe it's me but I can't read This paper is under cited as meaning This paper is cited below/underneath, it can only mean This paper hasn't been cited as much as it should have been – Araucaria Jul 24 '14 at 11:43
  • @Araucaria I think you misunderstand me. I didn't mean that I read it as ‘cited below’, but that without the hyphen, the compound stops reading as a compound to me, being just a preposition and its object—and making little sense. “This paper is under cited” is parallel to me to “This paper is under scrutiny”, while “This paper is under-cited” is what the asker is asking about. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 '14 at 11:46
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Ah, yes, I did misunderstand you. Esp on re-reading your comment. :) – Araucaria Jul 24 '14 at 11:57
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I don't think there's a set answer to this question, partly because the usages tend to evolve over time.

For example, you can look up "he was over-dressed" on Google books. You'll find several hits, although many (yet not all) of them are from works written in the 19th century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, changing the search to "he was overdressed" returns more results, and most of those from more modern works, though exceptions can be found in either direction:

His dress was foppish; in fact he was overdressed, yet his garments were worn so easily they appeared to be a necessary part of him. He had a dark coat with lighter pantaloons... (E.T. Mason, 1891)

He was over-dressed in his suit and soon had the jacket slung over one shoulder. (P. Lovesey, 2003)

It seems that early on, timid writers are perhaps cautious about coining a new word, and may be inclined to use a hyphen. Later, as a phrase becomes more common and widely accepted, the hyphen gets dropped, the way hyphens tend to do over time.

Hyphens are sometimes like training wheels, it seems.

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