Suffixes: How to Know Whether It's Systemwide or System-wide
A lot of people get tripped up on suffixes, unsure whether to hyphenate them or whether it’s okay to slap them right on the ends words, thereby forming conglomerations that send spellchecker into panic mode: words like “neighborhoodwide,” “instrumentborne,” and “dismissable.”
The alternatives don’t look much better:
neighborhood-wide, instrument-borne, dismiss-able
neighborhood wide, instrument borne, dismiss able
What to do?
Actually, this seeming conundrum is pretty easy to deal with. First, check your dictionary to make sure that a one-word form of your desired word doesn’t already exist. For example, “communitywide” is already listed in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So that’s a no-brainer. Just use the already-existing word.
If your main word isn’t in there, look up the suffix to find out if it’s really, well, a suffix.
Dictionaries designate suffixes with a little hyphen in front of them. For example, if you look up “wide” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, you see the first entry is for the plain old adjective (“The street is wide”). But after that, there’s an entry for -wide, the suffix. And, like many dictionaries, this one’s very clear on how to deal with them. “The very full coverage of affixes (prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms) makes it possible for a dictionary user to understand and pronounce many words that are not entered in the dictionary. The dictionary user can form these words by combining affixes with words already entered."
In other words, as long as it’s listed in the dictionary as a suffix, you can slap it right on the end of any other word in the dictionary, spellchecker be damned. A lot of suffix entries, including -wide, make these easy instructions even clearer by including the term “combining forms" right in the dictionary entry, meaning you can combine them to other words at will.
On the other hand, if the word you want to use as a suffix isn’t actually a suffix, for example maker, you can’t attach it directly to another word. But you can follow one of two easy styles. In Chicago style (that is, in book- and magazine-style writing), make it two words: sneaker maker. In AP style (preferred by news media and PR agencies), connect the two nouns with a hyphen: sneaker-maker.
Even if you get that wrong, it’s not too big a deal. Most readers, including editors, know the rules aren’t exactly cut-and-dried. So no one will think it so bad if sneaker maker slips into an article you’re writing or sneaker-maker appears in your book manuscript.