Not-the best place for-a hyphen

I was reading yesterday about a football club that has 2 ‘co-sporting directors’. That is an odd place to put the hyphen. People do often put a hyphen after the prefix co. Indeed, I often do that myself, to make it easier for readers to see the structure of the word.

But in this case, the hyphenation doesn’t work so well, because there is no hyphen between sporting and directors. As a result, it looks as though the link between co and sporting is closer than the link between sporting and directors. Yet, clearly, this phrase is talking about 2 people who are both sporting directors, not about 2 directors who are co-sporting—whatever that might mean.

A bracketing paradox

This is an example of a bracketing paradox. The orthographic structure of the phrase (shown in (1)) is inconsistent with its semantic structure (shown in (2)).

(1) [co-sporting] directors
orthographic structure
‘directors who are co-sporting’

(2) [co- [sporting directors]]
semantic structure
‘people who are both sporting directors’

Mismatches of this kind (between one structure and another structure) are often called bracketing paradoxes because one way to show the structures is by using brackets, as done above.

I have discussed another paradox before. In that case, a phrase’s morphological (word form), phonological (sound) and syntactic (phrase form) structures were inconsistent with its semantic structure (meaning). Unsocially distanced: a bracketing paradox? – Language Miscellany

Other examples

Bauer, Lieber and Plag (2013) give some examples of spellings found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. Two of their examples (co-artistic director and co-medical director) use hyphens in exactly the same why as the CO-sporting directors example I complain about in this post. The other examples they give there are:

  • 2 examples of a compound written with 2 hyphens: co-boat-owner; co-cave-dweller
  • 1 example with a single hyphen after, with the other 2 components written as one word with no hyphen: co-topdog

All 3 of those examples are short, though, so the solution used for them works much better than it would for co-sporting director.

One other example Bauer, Lieber and Plag (2013) give (in another part of the book) is co-first-place.

One very minor annoyance in Bauer, Lieber and Plag’s excellent book results from mis-guided typesetting. They cite the word co-decision-making (page 511 of the paperback edition). But the line ends after decision, so the reader cannot tell whether the following hyphen occurred in the source, or whether it came from an automated hyphenation tool.

An editorial solution?

Are there better ways to write co-sporting directors?

  • Put the hyphen between sporting and directors?  Co sporting-directors? That would show the closer link between sporting and directors, but co- is usually treated as a prefix added to derive a new word, rather than a separate word (an adjective).
  • Use 2 hyphens? Co-sporting-directors? Aesthetically, that looks unpleasant. Also, people wouldn’t normally put a hyphen in sporting-directors?
  • Use no hyphens at all, and write the 3 components separately? Co sporting directors? As I’ve already said above, people don’t usually treat co as a separate word.
  • Run sportingdirectors into a single word with no hyphen, and write co either with or without a hyphen? Co sportingdirectors or co-sportingdirector? That approach is fine in some other languages, for example German, but it is unusual in English.
  • Avoid the problem by replacing co-. For example, joint sporting directors. That solution is fine because joint is clearly a separate word and can happily be written separately and with no hyphen.

Origin of the prefix co-

Dixon (2014) notes that the Latin preposition com (‘with’) developed within Latin into a prefix, with firms co- (before h or gn), com- before the bilabial consonants b, p and m and con- elsewhere. Early modern English borrowed many Latin words containing that prefix, and it remains highly productive in deriving new words in modern English.  

Dixon points out that the word co-conspirator contains 2 instances of the prefix:

  • the 1st instance forms the noun conspirator (and the related verb conspire); and
  • the 2nd instance, layered on top of the 1st instance, creates a noun denoting people who conspire together.


The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology, Laurie Bauer, Rochelle Lieber and Ingo Plag (2013)

Making New Words: Morphological Derivation in English (RMW Dixon (2014)

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