A Hyphen in 'Co-worker'?

Here’s a trend I’m not loving: “coworker.”

Perhaps it’s my AP Style background, but I greatly – greatly -- prefer “co-worker.” Without the hyphen, the first thing I see is “cow.” The whole word looks, at a glance, like it’s pronounced “cow irker.” I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years, and as far as I know, none of them has a history of harassing cattle.

Unfortunately, though both forms are correct, the one without the hyphen seems to be winning out. In fact, a few years ago, I specifically asked the copy editor of one of my books to keep a hyphen in “co-worker” and I even pointed her to a page in the Chicago Manual of Style that permitted it. But she overruled me.

The rules for hyphenating prefixes are different from general hyphenation rules. Basic hyphenation rules deal mainly with connecting two whole, distinct words like “good-looking.” “Co,” “anti,” “un” and a jillion other prefixes are not the same because they’re not words.

Both of the AP and Chicago style manuals say to use prefixes and suffixes as follows: Don’t hyphenate them, except when we say to. Then they go on to list tons of exceptions, many of them surprisingly sensible when you see them on paper. For example, “ex” is always hyphenated. And when you write out “exboyfriend,” you see why. It just looks bad. Proper nouns, numbers and terms that would put too many repeated letters in a row (antiinclined) take hyphens in AP and take either a hyphen or an en dash in Chicago.  

Plus, the style guides also include lists of exceptions, some of them quite detailed. Here’s AP on “co-“:

“Retain the hyphen when forming nouns, adjectives and verbs that indicate occupation or status: co-author, co-chairman ...

Use no hyphen in other combination: coed, coeducation, coequal, coexist.”

“Co-worker” is one of the terms that AP says should keep its hyphen. Chicago prefers no hyphen, though the guide leaves you some wiggle room.

But the unhyphenated form seems to be winning out. Even in news outlets that follow AP style or something like it, I’m seeing “coworker” more and more.

I’d say that irks me, but I’m afraid of what that would make me sound like.

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