This article appeared under the heading To hyphenate or not to hyphenate: that is the (thorny) question in PEGboard July 2018.
Judging by the queries raised on the PEG chat group, the humble hyphen seems to have a lot of explaining to do! In this post, I focus on its many and varied uses in South African and UK English. Perhaps a few guidelines on the reasons for its usage (or not) will be useful.
I’ll be detailing six contexts in which the use of a hyphen prevents ambiguity, promotes clarity and aids the readability of text. I also consider briefly when a hyphen should not be used, before concluding with some points about the status of hyphenation in English.
Hyphen usage a matter of evolution, style, observation and instinct
There’s little doubt that hyphen usage (or not) reflects the Atlantic Divide between UK and US English (Kahn 1985:275): US English is much less hospitable to hyphens than UK English (Garner 2016:751). But reasonable people, Garner says, can agree that the hyphen must appear when an ambiguity or miscue (the reader being misled as to the writer’s intended meaning) is possible without it. For example:
- pre-judicial (career) vs prejudicial (treatment)
- re-sign (sign again) vs resign (terminate)
Nevertheless, there are many instances in which the hyphen is necessary (or advisable); yet others in which there is an important distinction between a hyphenated compound and two separate words, and others in which the hyphen, by being misplaced, sets up an error or an ambiguity. Since hyphenation often depends upon the word’s or phrase’s role and its position in a sentence, these functions need to be considered when deciding whether to hyphenate or not (NHR 2014:58).
First, I consider six contexts when the insertion of a hyphen is necessary or advisable.
1. A hyphen is usually inserted between a word and a prefix, suffix or other word-element (pre- and re- are special cases)
The prefixes anti-, co-, ex-, mid-, non-, pre-, post-, pro- and self- are often separated from what follows by hyphens (Kahn 1985:275; NHR 2014:61-2; Swan 2005:551).
The hyphen’s main function is to prevent ambiguity or awkward-looking combinations of characters:
- anti-war; co-accused; ex-partner; mid-term; non-proliferation
- post-publication; pre-listing; pre-1980s; pro-life; self-study
When a prefix is attached to a proper noun, it must be hyphenated:
- un-American; sub-Saharan; trans-Asian; anti-Darwinism
The hyphen is used to avoid unusual combinations of letters (NHR 2014:61; NODWE 2014:85):
- anti-inflammatory; counter-revolution; micro-organism; non-negotiable
The hyphen must be used (1) when re- or pre- is followed by the letter e or when the first letter of the main part of the word is the same as the last letter of the prefix or combining form:
- re-educate; re-enter; re-examine; pre-empt; pre-examination
- anti-intellectual; counter-revolutionary
(2) when re- carries the meaning ‘again’, the hyphen helps to distinguish this meaning from that of the conventional unhyphenated form (Kahn 1985:275; NHR 2014:61; NODWE 2014:299, 317):
- re-store vs restore
- re-create vs recreate
- re-bound vs rebound
- re-cover vs recover
- re-treat vs retreat
- pre-date vs predate (as in catch prey)
For example, in ‘They were using it to mark straight lines for relaying some flagstones’ (Partridge 1973:146), re-laying would be correct.
(3) When the prefix is repeated:
- anti-antilibertarian; sub-subcategory
Suffixes are always written either hyphenated or one word (closed) (NHR 2014:62):
- Hyphenated: shell-less; bell-like (to avoid three l’s in a row); tortoise-like; Paris-like
- Closed: catlike; husbandless; childproof; moonscape; nationwide
2. A hyphen is used to unite separate words into compound forms that function as a single unit
Such compound forms can also be written with spaces between their components or even as a single word with neither spaces nor hyphens (Kahn 1985:275):
- tax payer; tax-payer; taxpayer
- head waiter; head-waiter; headwaiter
Both British and US Englishes tend to avoid single-word compounds that would lead to strings of three or more consonants, or awkward combinations. For instance:
- girlfriend (rlfr); publichouse (ch)
Says Garner (2016:752): ‘If two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun that follows, those words (excluding the noun) should be hyphenated.’ Carey (1971:82-3) and Strunk, White and Kalman (2000:55-6) concur. Collectively, they give us some useful examples:
- credit card vs credit-card application
- high frequency vs high-frequency sounds
- leisure class vs leisure-class pursuits
- natural gas vs natural-gas pipeline
- small business vs small-business perspectives
- a bomb dropped by air vs an air-dropped bomb
- the end of term vs end-of-term activities
- hardest working vs hardest-working staff members
Forgetting to put hyphens in phrasal adjectives frequently leads to miscues. For example, does the phrase popular music critic refer to a critic in the area of popular music or to a sociable music critic?
If the former, the phrase should be popular-music critic (Garner 2016:598).
And in the sentence ‘Every dog loving man should buy a ticket for this show’ (a dog-show), to avoid ambiguity, dog-loving should be hyphenated to create the writer’s intended meaning (Partridge 1973:146).
Furthermore, in instances such as these, the hyphen is again useful in preventing confusion. There is a great difference between these pairs:
- four year-old horses (four horses each a year old)
- four-year-old horses (horses four years of age)
- a fast food-worker (a food worker who works fast)
- a fast-food worker (a worker in a fast-food factory or restaurant)
As both Carey (1971:81) and Kahn (1985:276) point out, the hyphen in these constructions in writing often corresponds to a change in the stress-pattern in speech. An important point to keep in mind.
Other examples of compounding adjective phrases are:
Compound adjectives comprising a longer phrase before a noun (as opposed to after it):
- an out-of-work labourer
- that labourer is out of work
- a step-by-step process
- we advanced step by step
- a boat entered in a round-the-island race
Compound nouns made up with prepositions and adverb particles:
Compound verbs that begin with a noun:
3. When the latter word in a compound ends in a suffix such as -ed, -ing or -er; or when the former word ends in -ing, a hyphen is used to attach them:
4. When a compound changes its part of speech (eg compound nouns and verbs becoming adjectives or nouns), a hyphen is needed to dispel ambiguity:
- Compound noun to compound adjective: fairy tale – fairy-tale wedding
- Compound verb (verb + adverb) to adjectives and nouns: run down – give a rundown; a rundown house
- Compound noun to hyphenated verb: cold shoulder – to cold-shoulder someone
5. Suspended hyphens
In an attempt to make writing less repetitive and laboured, authors (and their editors) resort to using the suspended hyphen. Some examples illustrate its usage:
- policemen and -women
- three-wheeled and -doored vehicle
- two-, three- and four-year-olds
- pre- and post-operative
- French- and Italian-speaking
- micro- and macroeconomics
- inter- and intranational
6. Compound numbers (21-99), fractions and compass points
- one hundred and thirty-five
- four-fifths; five-sixteenths
- three six-hundredths of a second
- north-north-west (but the names of winds are closed – southeaster; northwesterly)
When not to use a hyphen
After adverbs that end in -ly:
- a nicely made point, not a nicely-made point
- the finely crafted chair, not the finely-crafted chair
It is generally not necessary when re- is followed by the letter a, i, o or u:
When a compound follows a noun:
- the report is up to date
- he is well known
With proper noun phrases (NHR 2014:62; NODWE 2014:361):
- ex-Prime Minister, not ex-Prime-Minister
- the Western Cape legislature, not the Western-Cape legislature
- a Northern Ireland spokesperson, not a Northern-Ireland spokesperson (but an all-Ireland delegation)
- South East Asia
With italic foreign phrases unless they are hyphenated in the original language (NHR 2014:60):
- an ex post facto decision
- an ad hominem argument
- a sense of savoir-vivre
Are hyphens disappearing?
Yes, and no.
In general, the evolution of a language and the frequency of usage of expressions play a role in the progression from two separate words (open form) to a hyphenated form to a single word (closed form) (Carey 1971:80; NHR 2014:58; Partridge 1973:146; Strunk, White & Kalman 2000:57); some compounds even progress directly from two words to one, circumventing hyphenation (Carey 1971:81; Kahn 1985:275).
For example, the concept light house (a structure with a fire burning in it that gave off light which guided ships) began its life as two words, then through more frequent usage became hyphenated, and now it appears as ‘lighthouse’ in most modern dictionaries.
Other examples are:
- health care > health-care > healthcare
- wild life > wild-life > wildlife
That process probably took centuries, but nowadays it is much quicker – take e-mail, for instance: a few decades after its coinage it is ubiquitously email (although NODWE 2014:115 says ‘also e-mail’) and, according to NHR (2014:62), ‘”ebook” is gaining ground over “e-book”, but less familiar terms such as “e-learning” are currently (ie 2014) hyphenated’ (NODWE 2104:112 gives only e-book).
In line with this process, Kahn (1985:275) and Swan (2005:551) agree that many common short compounds are now written ‘solid’, with no division between the words, for example:
Other less common or longer compounds are now more likely to be written as separate words:
- train driver
- living room
- service provider
But, adds Swan, this rather fluid situation at present is somewhat confused, and it is not unusual to find the same expression spelt in three different ways (eg ‘bookshop, book-shop, book shop’). He, along with Kahn (1985:275) and Strunk, White and Kalman (2000:57), offers us sound advice, though:
‘If one is not sure whether to use a hyphen between words or not, the best thing is to look in a dictionary, or to write the words without a hyphen’ (Swan 2005:551).
Carey, GV 1971 Mind the stop. London: Penguin.
Garner, BA 2016 Garner’s modern English usage. Oxford: OUP.
Kahn, J (ed) 1985 The right word at the right time. London: Reader’s Digest.
Partridge, E. 1973 Usage and abusage. London: Penguin.
Ritter, RM (ed) 2014 New Oxford dictionary for writers and editors (NODWE). Oxford: OUP.
Strunk, W, White, EB & Kalman, M 2000 (4th ed) The elements of style. London: Penguin.
Swan, M 2005 (3rd ed) Practical English usage. London: OUP.
Treble, HA & Vallins, GH 1973 An ABC of English usage. Oxford: OUP.
Waddingham, A (ed) 2014 (2nd ed) New Hart’s rules: The Oxford style guide (NHR). Oxford: OUP.