The hyphen: where do you draw the line?

Not many people lose sleep over hyphens – but over-use clutters text and slows readers down, while misuse is confusing. Here’s how to get hyphenation right

photograph of a woman writing in a notebook to illustrate a blog post on hyphenation

Photograph by Luis Llerena

Like comma usage, hyphenation is largely a matter of preference and convention rather than adherence to a set of hard and fast rules. Its usage varies and changes from place to place and decade to decade and all kinds of illogical exceptions exist. At the end of the day its purpose is to aid comprehension, and whether or not you use a hyphen often comes down to context. Personally, I think they look a little messy and I always prefer white space if possible; my general rule of thumb is to leave them out unless doing so makes the meaning of a sentence unclear or will slow the reader down. If you struggle with hyphens, here are some useful guidelines.

You need a hyphen…

1. To join two words together as a compound adjective before a noun – if the meaning is ambiguous

For instance:

“Fifty-odd people attended the conference” (around fifty people, not fifty strange people)

“The inflatable-toy seller did a roaring trade at the fair” (but not because he was pumped full of air…)

“Man-eating shark spotted off coastline” (as opposed to a man tucking in to a rather ambitious meal)

In these cases a hyphen is needed to avoid ambiguity. Sure, you can guess what the writer means, but you shouldn’t have to think about it and no one wants a serious piece of writing to become accidentally hilarious.

However, if your meaning is absolutely clear then the hyphen becomes redundant:

“Investing in technology is a high risk strategy

“Our fashion conscious customers know all the new brands

“To keep things simple we’re sticking to a pared back plan

Here, the phrases used are so well known that a reader would instantly understand. A LOT of people would disagree with me on this and would hyphenate all compound adjectives as a matter of course, but I think this is unnecessary and – horror – looks messy.

2. Because the dictionary tells you so

Compound words are sometimes hyphenated (horse-trading) and sometimes not (horsepower). Although certain prefixes (all-, ex-, far-) and certain suffixes (-free, -in, -on) are usually hyphenated, there’s no way to tell for sure except to look them up in the dictionary. Dictionaries may vary – although there is consensus on most words – so choose your publisher (Collins, Oxford, Chambers, etc) and stick with it; the main thing here is consistency. And if the word you’re looking for isn’t in the dictionary? That means it’s written as two words with no hyphen.

3. To indicate an implied but missing element (the suspensive hyphen)

As in: “The jacket was wind-, water- and fire-resistant” (although rewriting the sentence might be neater: “The jacket was resistant to wind, water and fire.”)

4. If prefixes and suffixes require them for clarity and meaning

As mentioned above, many prefixes and suffixes take hyphens as a matter of convention. But there are some instances when a hyphen is REALLY needed. They can look pretty weird, but it’s a necessary evil. For instance:

Someone who prays has to be a pray-er rather than a prayer

You re-collect signatures for the petition you lost, rather than recollect them

The lost armchair was recovered; the torn armchair was re-covered

When a prefix ends in the same letter as the first letter of the word it modifies (root word), a hyphen helps with clarity and pronunciation – especially when those letters are vowels: semi-independent; pre-election; de-escalate (although coordination and cooperate are so common as to be acceptable). Other letter clash situations include de-ice (not deice), co-write (not cowrite) and ball-laden (not ballladen).

You also need a hyphen when the root word starts with a capital letter or a number:

“His stance was very pro-British”

“The film is not suitable for under-12s”

“Her policies indicate that she is anti-BBC”

You don’t need a hyphen…

1.To join an adverb to a verb or adjective

An adverb is a word that describes, modifies or qualifies a verb, adjective or another adverb. They never need hyphens (technical reason: because a compound description is already indicated). Sounds simple – but this is where hyphens are most overused. The problem lies in defining an adverb. Most people think of adverbs as words ending in -ly, as that’s what we’re taught at school. And, indeed, you don’t need to hyphenate a slowly moving train, softly spoken girl or stylishly dressed gentleman.

But words such as very, well, muchoften, soon and ever are also adverbs. You wouldn’t write, “It’s a really-awful situation.” In which case you also shouldn’t write, “It’s a well-written play” or “She is ever-more ridiculous” or “His soon-forgotten songs are not worth listening to.” Recognising an adverb is not always easy  – they form a notoriously mixed class of words. But look at it this way – if you removed the hyphen from any of the above sentences, would it make any difference?

2. When a compound adjective follows a noun

We watched back-to-back episodes, but the houses were back to back

They use up-to-the-minute technology, but the design was up to the minute

The restaurant is an A-list haunt, but the hotel is a favourite with the A list

3. When you need a dash, not a hyphen

Hyphens join words together; dashes – which are longer, like so – keep them apart. They interrupt or extend a sentence – allowing you to add afterthoughts, lists, pauses, examples, emphasis, exceptions, hesitations and surprises.

The bottom, er, line? Hyphenation mostly comes down to common sense. And it really isn’t worth losing sleep over.

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