When you find yourself writing for a living, things that previously seemed insignificant suddenly take on a whole new level of importance. For instance, I stumbled across a little grammatical challenge last night, as I was putting together some hardware-related tutorials for a forthcoming bookazine about how to dismantle and remantle your Mac. I like to think that I know enough about the rules of English grammar to get by, but every now and then I have to lurch from my desk and reach for the not-very-well-thumbed copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage that lurks in the bookcase at the back of the room.
Such a case occurred last night while I was writing a tutorial step that involved plugging in a cable that had been disconnected in a previous step. At first I wrote ‘reattach’, but when I read it back it looked wrong, like the name of an esoteric brand of Scotch. So I bunged in a hyphen and got ‘re-attach’. That didn’t look right either. Time to consult Fowler.
And here’s what he replied: words beginning with ‘re’, meaning to do something for a second time, should not normally be hyphenated (reconnect, reapply, reinsert, reattach). The only times you need a hyphen are when the secondary word, the verb that’s being done again, begins with an ‘e’ (re-enter, re-establish, re-edit), or when you need to differentiate between two different meanings of what would otherwise be the same word (recollect and re-collect, recount and re-count).
Fowler gives the ‘re’ the grandiose title of ‘The Prefix of Repetition’. Sounds to me like a John Martyn album title from the 70’s, but there you go. You really do learn something new every day – in this case, that it was actually worth buying that book after all.
The foibles of our mother tongue are indeed an intrigue (or should that be intriguing)?
Same word, different meanings often perplex me, for instance: “I want to buy some Polish polish”. It is only the capital letter that defines the word. “I met an invalid invalid” a disabled person who wasn’t! And “I waited for a minute minute” goodness me, that was a small minute!
These are a few instances where just one aspect of our language becomes fuzzied (or should that be fuzzy)?
Thanks Dave! I was in a bind about ‘reattach’ for an article I was uploading to my site. Much help.
Dave, thank you for your post. I came to your site by accident. Like you I was facing the same dilemma. My case was with the word reattach.
Listen, I was so impressed with your clarification of the “re” usage that I even purchased the book you commented about. You should consider getting in one of those Amazon affiliate subscriptions. You might make some money on the side. I had to go to amazon directly to purchase the book. It would have been helpful if you had a link that would direct me to purchase the book. Just an after thought. 🙂 Cheers.
Love when I learn something new. This just came in handy for a piece I was editing.