Just doing my job: the helpful hyphen

You’ll have seen Grammar Man here at Full Proof. Grammar Man is our linguistic superhero, saving the world from grammatical blunders. Well, we’d also like to introduce you to Mr Helpful – the hyphen.

He and the rest of his punctuation teammates (comma, full stop, colon, semicolon, apostrophe, quotation mark, bracket, dash, ellipsis, slash, exclamation mark and question mark) make up the essential toolkit for punctuating written text – like a tool belt you can carry around your waist from which you can select the right tool for the right job. Here at Full Proof, we ensure that our proofreading service results in your text having the correct and appropriate punctuation.

So how is the hyphen so helpful? Well, it’s the hyphen’s job to eliminate, wherever possible, confusion or ambiguity by linking words which are meant to be read together. This occurs in three main areas:

1. Separating parts of compound words:

  • Formation of a verb from a compound noun (e.g. booby-trapped).
  • Formation of a noun from a phrasal verb/prepositional verb (e.g. go through a break-up with someone).
  • Formation of a word with a prefix (e.g. multi-storey).
  • Formation of compound adjectives (e.g. right-handed, thick-skinned).
  • Compound numerals (e.g. thirty-three).

2. Linking words of a phrase or to show that some words are meant to be read together:

  • Where there may be confusion without it (e.g. bounty-hunter). In these circumstances, a white space is the other option (e.g. bounty hunter).
  • Light blue trousers v light-blue trousers.
  • Eight-year-old boy.
  • Where a two-word compound is placed before a noun to modify it (e.g. a well-known actor, a copper-producing country, a low-scoring match).
  • In prefixes where it would otherwise be hard to read (e.g. non-negotiable), or if it may be confusing (e.g. he re-covered the armchair).
  • After a prefix if a capital letter or number follows (e.g. non-European countries, post-1945 aircraft); if the compound noun already has a hyphen (e.g. anti-fox-hunting); and whenever a piece of a word is cited (e.g. pre- and post-war Berlin).

3. Splitting two syllables of a word where the whole word will not fit onto a line. There are dictionaries which list preferred word divisions, including the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary. Many word processors will perform word division automatically but it’s good to be aware of the following basic rules:

  • Try to correspond with the syllable division (e.g. cus-tard).
  • Try not to divide words with fewer than six letters.
  • Divide between elements of a compound word (e.g. dessert-spoon).
  • Divide between the root and a prefix/suffix (e.g. un-prepared, wash-able).
  • Do not divide where confusion may be caused to the reader (e.g. coin-cidence, un-iversal, comp-uter).
  • Bad word divisions include leg-end, read-just and the-rapist.

As you can see, Mr Helpful has many reasons for being there. So the next time you see a hyphen, perhaps take a moment to consider the very helpful job it’s doing.

To read more original articles about grammar, please click here.