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The hyphen (-) is the small bar found on every keyboard. It has several
related uses; in every case, it is used to show that what it is attached to does not
make up a complete word by itself. The hyphen must never be used with
white spaces at both ends, though in some uses it may have a white space at one
Most obviously, a hyphen is used to indicate that a long word has been
broken off at the end of a line:
You should avoid such word splitting whenever possible. If it is unavoidable,
try to split the word into two roughly equal parts, and make sure you split it at
an obvious boundary. Do not write things like
- We were dismayed at having to listen to these utterly inconse-
- quential remarks.
The first two of these are not broken at syllable boundaries, while the third is
broken into two very unequal pieces. If you are in doubt as to where a word
can be split, consult a dictionary. Many good dictionaries mark syllable
boundaries to show you where words can be hyphenated. Some publishers
even bring out hyphenation dictionaries containing no other information. Best
of all, many word processors will perform hyphenation automatically, and you
won't have to worry about it. In any case, note that a hyphen in such a case
must be written at the end of its line, and not at the beginning of the following
The hyphen is also used in writing compound words which, without the
hyphen, would be ambiguous, hard to read or overly long. Here, more than
anywhere else in the whole field of punctuation, there is room for individual
taste and judgement; nevertheless, certain principles may be identified. These
On this last point, consult a good dictionary; Collins or Longman is
recommended, since the conservative Chambers and Oxford dictionaries
frequently show hyphens which are no longer in normal use.
- (1) Above all, strive for clarity;
- (2) Don't use a hyphen unless it's necessary;
- (3) Where possible, follow established usage.
Should you write land owners, land-owners or landowners? All are
possible, and you should follow your judgement, but I prefer the third, since it
seems unambiguous and easy to read, since it avoids the use of a hyphen and
since this form is confirmed by Longman and Collins as the usual one (while
Chambers, predictably, insists on the hyphenated form).
What about electro-magnetic versus electromagnetic? Collins
Longman confirm that only the second is in use among those who use the term
regularly, but again Oxford clings stubbornly to the antiquated and pointless
On the other hand, things like *pressurecooker, *wordprocessor and
*emeraldgreen are impossibly hard on the eye; reference to a good dictionary
will confirm that the established forms of the first two are pressure cooker and
word processor, while the last is emerald green or emerald-green, depending on
how it is used (see below).
The hyphen is regularly used in writing so-called "double-barrelled"
names: José-María Olazábal, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Philip
Johnson-Laird. However, some individuals with such names prefer to omit the
hyphen: Jean Paul Sartre, Hillary Rodham Clinton. You should always respect
the usage of the owner of the name.
Now here is something important: it is usually essential to hyphenate
compound modifiers. Compare the following:
The hyphen in the second example is necessary to show that good-night is
single compound modifier. Without the hyphen, the reader might easily be
- She kissed him good night.
- She gave him a good-night kiss.
Here the reader might be momentarily flummoxed into thinking that she had
given him some kind of "night kiss", whatever that means. Here are some
Use hyphens liberally in such compound modifiers; they are often vital to
comprehension: a light-green dress is not necessarily a light green dress; our
first-class discussion is quite different from our first class discussion; a rusty
nail cutter is hardly the same as a rusty nail-cutter; a woman-hating religion is
utterly different from a woman hating religion; and a nude-review producer is
most unlikely to be a nude review producer! You can mislead your reader
disastrously by omitting these crucial hyphens: She always turned up for the
end of term parties does not appear to mean the same as the hyphenated example
above (example adapted from Carey 1958: 82). So make a habit of hyphenating
your compound modifiers:
- Her dress is light green.
- She's wearing a light-green dress.
- This book token is worth ten pounds.
- This is a ten-pound book token.
- She always turned up for the parties at the end of term.
- She always turned up for the end-of-term parties.
- This essay is well thought out.
- This is a well-thought-out essay.
- Her son is ten years old.
- She has a ten-year-old son.
The correct use or non-use of a hyphen in a modifier can be of vital
importance in making your meaning clear. Consider the next two examples:
- a long-standing friend
- not *a long standing friend
- well-defined rules
- not *well defined rules
- a copper-producing region
- not *a copper producing region
- a low-scoring match
- not *a low scoring match
- little-expected news
- not *little expected news
- a green-eyed beauty
- not *a green eyed beauty
- a rough-and-ready approach
- not *a rough and ready approach
- a salt-and-pepper moustache
- not *a salt and pepper moustache
- a far-ranging investigation
- not *a far ranging investigation
- her Swiss-German ancestry
- not *her Swiss German ancestry
- her new-found freedom
- not *her new found freedom
- the hang-'em-and-flog-'em brigade
- not *the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade
These do not mean the same thing at all. The first means that, of all the
hominids we know about, H. habilis was the earliest one to exist (but not
necessarily the first one we knew about). The second means that, of all the
hominids, H. habilis was the first one we knew about (but not necessarily the
first one to exist). Effectively, the first sentence includes the structure [earliest]
[known hominid], while the second includes the structure [earliest-known]
[hominid]. Again, these two sentences would be pronounced differently, but
the pronunciation difference is lost in writing; hence accurate punctuation is
essential if you are not going to mislead your reader utterly. Punctuation is not
a matter for personal taste and caprice, not if you want your readers to
understand what you've written. (As it happens, the first statement is true, but
the second one is false.)
- The earliest known hominid was Homo habilis.
- The earliest-known hominid was Homo habilis.
A compound modifier may also require a hyphen when it apears after
the verb. Here is a splendid example from Carey (1958): Her face turned an
ugly brick-red appears to mean something very different from Her face turned
an ugly brick red.
Old-fashioned usage, especially in Britain, favours excessive
hyphenation, producing such forms as to-day, co-operate, ski-ing, semi-colon
and even full-stop; such hyphens are pointless and ugly and should be avoided.
Much better are today, cooperate, skiing, semicolon
and full stop: don't use a
hyphen unless it's doing some real work.
Prefixes present special problems. She's repainting the lounge seems
unobjectionable, but She's reliving her childhood is possibly hard to read and
should perhaps be rewritten as She's re-living her childhood. And She re-covered the sofa [= `She put a new cover on the sofa'] is absolutely essential to
avoid confusion with the entirely different She recovered the sofa [= `She got
the sofa back']. The chemical term meaning `not ionized' is routinely written
by chemists as unionized, but, in some contexts, you might prefer to write un-ionized to avoid possible confusion with the unrelated word unionized
`organized into unions'. Use your judgement: put a hyphen in if you can see a
problem without it, but otherwise leave it out. Here are a few examples of good usage:
The hyphen is written only when the word would be hard to read without it:
*nonnegotiable, *preempt. As always, consult a good dictionary if you're not
- but mini-aircraft
- but non-negotiable
- but pre-empt
- but anti-aircraft
Observe, by the way, that a prefix must not be written as though it
a separate word. Thus all the following are wrong:
There are three cases in which a hyphen is absolutely required after a
prefix. First, if a capital letter or a numeral
- *post war period
- *non communist countries
- *mini computer
- *anti vivisectionists
Second, if the prefix is added to a word which already contains a hyphen:
- non-EC countries
- un-American activities
- pre-Newtonian physics
- anti-French feeling
- post-Napoleonic Europe
- pre-1500 English literature
Your reader cannot be expected to take in at a glance some indigestible glob like
*his preglobe-trotting days or *an unre-elected politician.
- non-bribe-taking politicians
- his pre-globe-trotting days
- non-stress-timed languages
- an un-re-elected politician
Third, if the prefix is added to a compound word containing a white space. In
this case, the white space itself must be replaced by a hyphen to prevent the
prefixed word from becoming unreadable:
Again, your readers will not thank you for writing something like *antiseal
killing campaigners or *our postcold-war world (or, still worse, *our postcold
war world, a piece of gibberish I recently encountered in a major newspaper)
Who are these campaigners who kill antiseals, whatever those might be, and
what is a war world and what is special about a postcold one?
- seal killing
- but anti-seal-killing campaigners
- twentieth century
- but pre-twentieth-century music
- cold war
- but our post-cold-war world
In any case, do not go overboard with large and complex modifiers.
The cumbersome anti-seal-killing campaigners can easily be replaced by
campaigners against seal-killing, which is much easier to read.
The hyphen may also be used in representing ranges of numbers, and
occasionally also other ranges. Printed books use a special symbol for this, the
en dash (), which is a little longer than a hyphen but still shorter than a full
dash. Few keyboards can produce an en dash, however; if yours can't, you
should use a hyphen instead (not a dash). A representation of the form XY
means `from X to Y' or `between X and Y'. Here are
Do not write things like this:
- Steel contains 0.11.7 % carbon.
- These fossils are 3035 million years old.
- The LondonBrighton vintage car rally takes place on Sunday.
- The declaration of the RomeBerlin axis led to the use of the label
`Axis powers' for Germany and Italy.
These are terrible, since the sense of `from' or `between' is already included in
- *Steel contains from 0.11.7 % carbon.
- *Steel contains between 0.11.7 % carbon.
Finally, the hyphen has one rather special use: it is used in writing
pieces of words. Here are some examples:
Only when you are writing about language are you likely to need this use of the
hyphen. If you do use it, make sure you put the hyphen at the correct end of
the piece-of-a-word you are citing that is, the end at which the piece has to
be connected to something else to make a word. And note that, when you're
writing a suffix, the hyphen must go on the same line as the suffix itself: you
should not allow the hyphen to stand at the end of its line, with the suffix on
next line. Word processors won't do this automatically, and you will need to
consult your manual to find out how to type a hard hyphen, which will always
stay where it belongs.
- The prefix re- sometimes requires a hyphen.
- The suffix -wise, as in `moneywise' and `healthwise', has become
enormously popular in recent years.
- The Latin word rex `king' has a stem reg-.
There is, however, one very special case in which you might want to
write a piece of a word in any kind of text. Consider the following example:
There is another way of writing this:
- Pre-war and post-war Berlin could hardly be more different.
This style is permissible, but observe that the now isolated prefix pre-
hyphen, since it is only a piece of a word.
- Pre- and post-war Berlin could hardly be more different.
The same thing happens when you want to write a piece of a word
which is not normally hyphenated, in order to avoid repetition:
This can also be written as follows:
- Natalie is studying sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.
The hyphen is also used in writing numerals
- Natalie is studying socio- and psycholinguistics.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997