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The use of non

Apr 08, 2011

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A few months back, we had some queries about how the prefix non is used. Here's what the editor had to say:

Can the prefix non be used as a word in its own right?

How can we determine when non should have a hyphen and when it should not?

How would you express the word 'non relevant'  as two words, one word or with a hyphen?

I have noticed an increasing tendency to use non in a free-floating fashion. I would say that what we have in the dictionary is still considered to be best usage.

You will find comments along the lines that American English has a greater tendency to combine non- with the word and take away the hyphen, so the examples that we give would become nonpasserine, nonporous, nonevent, nonarrival.

There is a problem with this way of doing things when the word starts with a capital, because nonJew and nonHodgkins lymphoma look very odd with a capital letter sticking up in the middle – but the solution to this is to reinstate the hyphen.

I think that the desire to have a free-standing non is strongly felt in conjunction with a compound noun, e.g., non health treatment.

Intuitively we know that the non is applying to the whole lexical item health treatment, not just to the health part  of it, so non-health treatment leads us to analyse the compound in a very odd way. We feel that non health treatment captures our intent much more clearly.

My own feeling would be to retain non- as a hyphenated prefix where it works and avoid the compound noun situation where it doesn't work by rephrasing the sentence.

Rather than: This is a non health treatment

I would say: This is not a health treatment


(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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