In academia the words inter-discipline, multi-discipline, trans-discipline, or cross-discipline are used to describe a type of combination between different disciplines or the uniqueness of a field.

Searching on OED.com for the terms inter, multi, cross and trans shows different uses.

  • multi has some nouns and adjectives, with one option of "multi-, comb. form"
  • cross has nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions, with "cross-, comb. form"
  • inter has nouns, adjectives, verbs and prepositions, with "inter-, prefix"
  • trans has nouns and adjectives, with "trans-, prefix"

In academia, the difference between multi or inter is not well-defined.

What is the difference between "comb.form" and "prefix"? Why are there no results for using multi or cross as a prefix, but there are for inter and trans? How did the interchangeability of these come about, or is it improper to use them that way?

  • 1
    What does "comb.form and prefix" mean?
    – Fattie
    Aug 29 '14 at 8:16
  • @JoeBlow from what I can understand, it is a shortened form of "combining form" Aug 29 '14 at 8:34
  • I think all of these are more common in the adjectival form, such as "multi-disciplinary" or "inter-disciplinary".
    – herisson
    May 12 '15 at 3:22

Combining form:


A form of a word normally used in compounds in combination with another element to form a word

ODO, emphasis mine

Combining forms tend to be words or roots that are combined with other words to form compound words.


1 An element placed at the beginning of a word to adjust or qualify its meaning (e.g. ex-, non-, re-) or (in some languages) as an inflection.

ODO, emphasis mine

Prefixes tend to be word elements that were Latin prepositions, which could also be used as Latin prefixes to add limited relational meaning to other Latin words. Words with these prefixes are not generally considered compound words.


The difference between a comb. form and a prefix is that a prefix becomes part of the word it is modifying, so that the words should be "interdisciplinary" or "transdisciplinary". On the other hand, a comb. form does not become part of the word, so that it is written "multi-disciplinary" or "cross-disciplinary". The words are very similar, in that they all refer to course, or degrees which draw on more than one field of inquiry. One example would be a course in the philosophy of science, in which both the science part and the philosophy part are of equal weight. Another example would be Art history, where one would need both knowledge of Art, and knowledge of historical study techniques.

"Multi-disciplinary" suggests the possibility that more than two disciplines might be involved. A person doing work on the history of the development of pigments in painting will need expertise in history, art, chemistry, and perhaps physics.

  • 2
    The difference doesn't have to do with punctuation; hyphens are optional on most words with any of these. The ones called prefixes are prepositions in Latin, and function a prefixes on Latin words, and they definitely don't have a lexical meaning -- only a relational (usually locative) meaning. Combining forms, on the other hand, form compounds, because they have independent meaning. Multi means "many" in Latin, and cross is a straightforward English word. The technical distinction is called "endocentric" versus "exocentric", but that's not really useful. Sep 28 '14 at 22:16

Multi is the only one (I think) that implies that the disciplines might intentionally have no overlap. If a person has a multi-discipline they may have two totally separate disciplines.

Cross often times implies a one person/subject with a combination of two or more disciplines.

Inter often implies that two (or more) people from different disciplines are working together in cooperation on a single project.

I have not heard trans-discipline used in my experience.

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