Hyphenation: Are you attaching a suffix or a whole word?

Would you write “a county-wide event” or “a countywide event” and, more important: why?

Anyone who knows the basics of using hyphens knows they connect two words that together modify a third. The word “county” and the word “wide” can be joined with a hyphen and thereby work as an adjective to describe “event.” So “county-wide event” is consistent with hyphenation rules.

I see forms like this all the time in the articles I edit – often in articles so clean and error-free that there’s no doubt the writer ran spell check. Yet, every time I see “county-wide” or “office-wide” or I change it to a one-word form: countywide, officewide. And I do so even when spell-check disapproves.

My reason: Even though hyphens can combine whole words like “county” and “wide” those rules don’t necessarily apply here because, depending on how you look at it, this “wide” isn’t a word. It’s a suffix.

Look up “wide” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary and you’ll see lots of information about the word itself. But toward the end of the definitions you’ll also see “-wide” with a little hyphen on front. The dictionary calls this a “combining form,” meaning you combine it with another word. And though Webster's doesn’t specify  whether you’d combine it with or without the hyphen, many editing styles say that, in general, you not use a hyphen to attach a suffix. (There are lots of exceptions, of course, but the style guides list those individually.)

So while the word “county” with the word “wide” would be “county-wide,” with the suffix “-wide” they combine to become “countywide.”

It’s not always that simple, though. Some terms are common enough to have their own dictionary entries, and when they do, those usually take precedence. For example, “storewide” is listed in Webster’s New World as its own word. So when you're writing "storewide," you're not combining two words or a word and a suffix. You're using a single word.

The guideline that says not to hyphenate most suffixes gets complicated when you start looking at longer words: university, community, corporation, etc. These don’t look so great with “wide” tacked on the end: “universitywide,” “communitywide,” “corporationwide.” So in these cases, there’s nothing to stop you from interpreting this “wide” as a whole word an not a suffix: university-wide, community-wide, corporation-wide. It’s a judgment call.

Just remember that anytime you want to combine a word with another that could be a suffix, first check a dictionary to make sure the compound isn't already listed as a single word, then check to see whether your second word is a suffix. If not, hyphenate away. If so, you can use your judgment and knowledge of combining forms to make the best decision.

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