Does the English language allow for reusing a word stem in the context of multiple prefixes?


  • pre- and suffixes both need a stem

  • sur- and interfaces

  • The machine was dis- and reassembled

If so, how far away can the components be?

First I dis-, then—after several years of not touching it—I reassembled the machine.

Are there any rules or is this mere stylistic freedom.

  • 1
    It must be opinion, but I'd be looking for whether the reader will get it immediately, or have to repeat the sentence three times, as two times would be too much. Every example here is too compressed for me to get it at first read. So I'd edit. Aug 9, 2022 at 13:50
  • I think this is a matter of opinion, but I'd agree you're better to say "prefixes and suffixes". You might get away with something like "fore- and afterword" because then you have 2 standard prefixes in close succession, but something like "sur-" or "suf-" isn't a standard/common prefix. Regardless, it's hardly going to break your keyboard to have to type an extra 2 or 3 characters.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 9, 2022 at 13:57
  • Good question. In writing (which is the only place it occurs) these can be separated as far as the reader's memory is willing to stretch. After all, the words don't go away like language does; permanence is the great benefit of writing. Aug 9, 2022 at 14:52

1 Answer 1


This involves a "suspended" or "hanging" hyphen, which has been discussed elsewhere on this site. When editing, I usually discourage its use, mostly because it often interrupts the sentence's flow. For example, if you write "pre- and suffixes", then a reader will likely pause to figure out that you mean "prefixes and suffixes" before moving on. If the reader has to reconstruct the first word, then why not just write it out in the first place? (Of course, in some situations the suspended hyphen may be preferable, for example if space is at a premium.)

Many people find the suspended hyphen perfectly acceptable, and it appears fairly often. However, it is usually used with hyphenated compounds, e.g. "land- and sea-vehicles". Its use for prefixes is rarer. (CMOS edition 14 table 6.1 says, "When alternative prefixes are offered for one word, the prefix standing alone takes a hyphen." It gives the examples "over- and underused" and "macro- and microeconomics".)

There's no strict rule about how close the components must be, but of course you don't want to overly burden your reader. (I find your last example pretty ungainly.)

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