by Laura Cameron
Published at 2018-06-06
The postgraduate student researching the rise of postmodernism in the postwar period found herself with post-traumatic stress disorder. A wealthy dealer gave the famous post-impressionist artist a post-dated cheque for his painting of a post-apocalyptic landscape. The soccer coach thought it would be best to postpone the weekly postgame festivities and throw one major postseason party instead.
The prefix “post,” it would seem, follows us everywhere. But a question that writers and editors must often face when they work with this prefix is whether to use a hyphen when attaching it to the root word. Should we write “post-structuralism” or “poststructuralism”? “Post-capitalism” or “postcapitalism”? Is it inconsequential—simply a matter of preference? Or does the humble hyphen signal something bigger—connect us, as it were, to some bigger philosophical and historical questions?
Sometimes the choice of whether to hyphenate a word such as “poststructuralism” is determined by the guidelines of a particular style. The Chicago and MLA Guides, for instance, agree that the hyphen should be avoided or eliminated wherever possible. “In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style,” reads the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (section 7.89); “hyphens should be added only if doing so will prevent a misreading or otherwise significantly aid comprehension.”
Likewise, the MLA Handbook, 9th ed. (section 3.2.6.h.) advises “not [to] use hyphens after prefixes,” and includes “post-” in the subsequent list of examples.
What does it mean, though, to “significantly aid comprehension” through hyphenation? Editors, as mechanical and regulated as their work often is, must also consider aesthetics—in particular, the look of a word on the page. Does it aid comprehension to write “post-structuralism” instead of “poststructuralism,” which very awkwardly repeats “stst” right in the middle of the word? It might. Sometimes simply the way we see a word affects how we understand it. This can be a judgment call on the part of the editor; that’s what we’re here for.
But what might guide us in making these sorts of calls, especially where “post-” is concerned?
According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the prefix “post-” signifies “after in time or order”; it comes directly from the Latin post, meaning “after” or “behind.” Sometimes, the shift that occurs when we add it to another term is quite simple: “post-war” is an adjective meaning “occurring or existing after a war.”
Things become a little more nuanced when it comes to modifying particular ideologies with “post-,” however. Here, the “after in time” definition comes to suggest also a rejection, as in “post-impressionism”: “the work or style of a group of … artists who reacted against the naturalism of the Impressionists” (OED). Even more blatant is the somewhat troubling term, “post-feminist,” which the OED defines as “moving beyond or rejecting some of the ideas of feminism as out of date.”
The hyphen has played a role in a particularly passionate segment of this very debate—to what extent does adding “post-” indicate that a given period or prevailing philosophy is “behind” us—surrounding the word “post(-)colonial.” “The prefix post in the term ‘postcolonial’—and whether or not it should carry a hyphen, as in ‘post-colonial’—has generated a vast amount of debate amongst critics as regards first principles, historical frameworks, and key definitions in the field,” writes Elleke Boehmer in Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide (340).
According to some critics, the hyphen emphasizes the breakage between “colonial” and “postcolonial” conditions, and to hint, therefore, at a more teleological progression away from political empire than there is or can be, when “in fact,” as Carolyn Ownbey points out, “the ramifications of colonialism continue.” Writing “postcolonial” without the hyphen, then, indicates to many scholars and theorists the ongoing presence of the “colonial” within the “postcolonial.”
To many, the term “post-” itself indicates that ongoing influence; as Wendy Brown explains in her introduction to Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, “the prefix ‘post’ signifies a formation that is temporally after but not over that to which it is affixed … a very particular condition of afterness in which what is past is not left behind, but, on the contrary, relentlessly conditions, even dominates, a present that nevertheless also breaks in some way with this past” (21; emphasis in original). Daniel Bell made a similar observation: “post-,” he wrote, “indicates [a] sense of living in the interstitial time” (quoted in Tony Judt, Postwar, 478), where the past is over but the future is uncertain.
The “post-,” then, is never really “past,” and affixing it to the principal term without a hyphen emphasizes the matryoshka doll-like relationship between the two eras, where one lives on inside the other, the colonial past ever structuring the postcolonial present.
And so, the next time it strikes you how small punctuation marks like commas, periods, and—yes—hyphens are, consider the political weight that they can bear, at least to those who want to think deeply about a topic. This is important for editors to keep in mind, because often, as the debate around “the postcolonial hyphen” suggests, authors have theoretically significant reasons for placing (or not placing) hyphens as they do, and these marks should not be systematically added or removed, no matter what the style guide instructs.
Above all, this situation offers a reminder that the lines of communication between writers and editors, as between ideas and their articulation, must always remain open—linked, so to speak, as though by that humble hyphen.
Because what would a blog post on “post-” be without a P.S.: If you are interested in further reading on this topic, check out Kwane Anthony Appiah’s classic essay, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” published in the winter 1991 issue of Critical Inquiry, and widely available elsewhere too. What do you think the answer to his title will be?