Saturday, 17 September 2011

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

The hyphen can be a great piece of punctuation that adds clarity to your copy. However, overuse can have the opposite effect – it can interrupt the flow of your words and make your reader stumble. My advice is to use hyphens sparingly and rephrase what you write rather than use too many.

When to use a hyphen

Using hyphens with prefixes
The rule here is not to hyphenate unless you have to. Most prefixes can be attached to the beginning of a word without a hyphen. The word prefix is a good example, as are semicolon, counteractive and outbuilding. However, there are some instances when you must use a hyphen.

Where ex is used as a prefix
When ex is used as a prefix it should be hyphenated.

Ex-employee / ex-demonstration / ex-husband

Where self is used as a prefix
When self is used as a prefix it should be hyphenated.

Self-employed / self-serving / self-deluded

Between prefixes and proper nouns
A proper noun is a noun that names a specific, often one-of-a-kind, thing. Proper nouns begin with a capital letter regardless of where they appear in a sentence (rare exceptions to this rule are Apple products like the iMac, iPod and iPhone).

Prefix and proper noun examples:
The drums belonged to ex-Beatle, Ringo Starr / an un-British characteristic 

To separate two identical vowels
If your prefix ends with an a or an i, and this also happens to be the start letter of the root word, then always use a hyphen to separate them. 

Semi-invasive / anti-inflammatory / ultra-ambitious

If your prefix ends with an e or an o, this rule is not consistent. While most of these prefixes can be joined without a hyphen e.g. preexisting, cooperation; there are still exceptions to this rule e.g. co-own, re-enter. Check the dictionary to be sure.

Using hyphens in compound words
A compound words consists of two or more words that combine to form a single idea. They can be written in a number of ways, but there are no set rules for determining which is correct. The best way to get them right is to use a dictionary.

Compound nouns are either written as separate words, joined, single words or hyphenated. If you can't find the compound noun you are looking for in the dictionary, then it is best to write it as two separate words.

Compound noun examples:
Door key, door handle / doormat, doorknob / door-opener

Compound verbs are either written as joined single words or hyphenated. If you can't find the compound verb you are looking for in the dictionary then, technically, you should hyphenate it.

Compound verb examples:

Overrate, overturn / over-complicate, over-seasoned

Compound adjectives should be hyphenated if you are joining two of them together to modify a noun. Use a comma instead of a hyphen if the words can be separated by and instead e.g. it was a bright, sunny day; the dessert was a sticky, sweet treat.

Compound adjective examples:
It was a heavy-looking suitcase / He was well-respected in his field 

Compound adverbs are usually hyphenated if they appear before the noun e.g. She was a well-respected doctor, but not if they appear after the noun e.g. As a doctor, she was well respected.

The main exception is when the adverb ends in -lyFor example a dimly lit room would not be hyphenated and neither would a slowly burning candle

Similarly, compounds beginning with less, more, least and most are not hyphenated – e.g. the yoghurt was less fattening, that exercise was more draining, that dress was the least flattering, that meal was most satisfying.

Compound adverb examples:
She had a well-maintained garden / He was a little-known comedian

Using hyphens in compound numbers and fractions
A compound number consists of two numbers that make a whole number. For example 21 should be written as twenty-one. The hyphen should be applied to all compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. After that it is customary to write the number e.g. 100, 101, 160.

Similarly compound fractions should always be hyphenated - e.g. three-quarters, two-thirds, four-fifths.

Using hyphens when it might be confusing not to

When using re as a prefix
But only if re refers to a repetition and it would cause confusion not to use a hyphen.

Recover, re-cover / redress, re-dress / recollect, re-collect

Using hyphens generally
As a writer/editor it is my job to enhance the reading experience. When I am trying to make an emphatic statement, the last thing I want is for my reader to stumble on a word half way through. So if I can't rephrase the sentence, and I genuinely feel it would make a word easier to read, I sometimes insert a hyphen regardless of what the rules say. 


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