Reattach or Re-attach? The Prefix of Repetition

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.


4 thoughts on “Reattach or Re-attach? The Prefix of Repetition

  1. 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)?

  2. 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.

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