Super vs supra

  • The prefix super- means larger, bigger, better, higher, or greater. Almost always this prefix is used without hyphens, unlike the prefix self-.

    Supra-, unlike hypo- and hyper-, is not an exact opposite of super-. In some cases, it has the same meaning and acts as a synonym, usually for words where the supra- formation exceeds the super- in popularity. Another definition of supra- is that the modified object rises above those around it or those before it.

    It should be noted that there are some words that still use a hyphen in their spelling with the supra- prefix. It’s always good to double-check a dictionary if in doubt.

    Some confusion arises because super and supra can be used as adjectives without being prefixes. Supra is rare, but it means to be mentioned above or earlier in the text. Super means exactly the same as its prefix form, bigger or better or greater in some way. People sometimes put a hyphen between super and the noun it modifies. Probably because they are torn between wanting to use super as a prefix and also knowing that whatever word they are forming is not a recognized term in the dictionary.


    However, hyphens are generally out of favor and fading from general use. They should not be added to words modified by super.

    The single exception to the above rule is the term super-duper.


    The yuan reform was in line with Beijing’s strong wish that the International Monetary Fund include the yuan in October as a new reserve currency in its Special Drawing Rights, a supranational currency basket consisting of the US dollar, pound sterling, yen and euro. [South China Morning Post]

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    1. I had learned “supra-” to mean above, in a positional sense, where “super-” means larger in a quantity or comparative value. Using your examples,

      “supranational” = organized at a level above national“superluminal” = a speed greater than the speed of light

      In some regards the less obvious pair might be “super-” and “ultra-”. We don’t say superviolet, but ultraviolet. Yet, we have both ultraheat and superheat. superliberal is not a word, but ultraliberal is. An ultralight aircraft is different from a superlight, which while not generally used as a word, is often used as a product name.

      Ultrasonic … supersonic. Ultrabasic, superbasic.Ultraheat, superheat. Ultramarathon, Supermarathon.Ultramodern, Supermodern.

      None of those words even got the red squiggly line imposed by my computer to indicate spelling issues.

      Perhaps an article?

      (and one on sub- and infra- too…)


    2. John Reed Avery says:

      I have no comment about the super vs supra issue. Your explanation seems fine to me, overall. And I have no beef with you, specifically, about anything you wrote, given that I assume that you wrote about general practice.

      However, I personally object to the apparent fact that, according to you, “hyphens are generally out of favor and fading from general use”. Again, I don’t object to your saying it. Rather, I object to the fact that this apparently is happening, although I’m not particularly surprised.

      I believe that the hyphen should distinctly INCREASE in use, because it is a useful mark for clarifying precisely the thing that one is referring to at any point in a sentence. It’s just like me to not be able to think of a good example when I need one but I did stumble across “stumbling-block”, for which it seems that many-if-not-most people already do include the hyphen: “stumbling-block”. My point is that the use and meaning of the hyphen in “stumbling-block” is appropriate and helpful in MANY-MANY-MANY more phrases than the vast majority of people realize or accept.

      And, above, I just happened, by chance, to stumble into another phrase that I believe represents a good example of how & why hyphens can and should be used more often, to improve clarity and elegance of meaning: “many-if-not-most people”. By including the hyphens in that phrase, it immediately makes it clear that that entire four-word phrase is the quantitative modifier to the noun “people”. Also, the visual representation of that phrase as a single entity, by using the hyphens, increases the elegance of the sentence, because those four words effectively become one thing.

      I know that I’m in a minuscule minority (perhaps of 1 in the entire world) in this regard but, as a song-lyricist once wrote “I could be wrong but I’m not.” ;-)

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