Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Little Dash With Panache or a Pesky Puzzler?

That’s the hyphen, of course, and it’s a complicated little symbol. Aside from indicating a word has been segmented on a line break (the placement of which I will leave up to your word processor and your good judgement), hyphens have the exciting job of joining words together to create a new or expanded meaning. Hyphens belong in two areas of writing—spelling and punctuation. They play an essential role in compound words and in their evolution from open compounds to closed compounds.

Take email, for example. I remember it being called electronic mail (open compound) before it morphed to e-mail (hyphenated compound). Now most dictionaries list it as email (closed compound).

Closed compounds evolve quickly in America. Open or hyphenated compounds are more common in the U.K. Canada straddles the fence, as usual, with a mixture of open, hyphenated, and closed compounds.

If a compound word is used frequently, it will show up in a dictionary. Don’t be surprised if dictionaries differ. They will. Pick the most current edition of your favourite dictionary (I recommend the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, for the U.S.; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, for Canada; and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary for the U.K.). The dictionary itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it is current, and you use the same one consistently.

So, one part of unravelling the mysteries of hyphenation is easy. Look up the compound word in the dictionary and use whatever combination you find there. Is it copy edit, copy-edit or copyedit? Your dictionary (the one you cherish above all other books in your library :-) ) will guide your way.

Of course, that doesn’t help with the pesky words we hyphenate to modify words. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:

The well-known actor sat down at the table. The compound word “well-known” is hyphenated.

The actor sitting at the table is well known. What’s up with that? We just saw that “well-known” is hyphenated. Here’s where the complexity comes in. Compound words are usually not hyphenated when they follow the word they modify.


It gets worse.

The beautifully dressed woman looks very elegant. Why isn’t this compound hyphenated? Well, sometimes it is, and now you’re ready to pull your hair out. But a good rule of thumb is that if you are writing for the North American market, don’t hyphenate a compound word when the first word ends in “ly.” If you are writing for the U.K. market, go ahead and hyphenate compounds that contain “ly” words.

The very well known actor is sitting next to me. Now what? The compound word is in front of the word it is modifying (actor), so why isn’t it hyphenated? If a compound word is further qualified by another modifier (very), then there is no hyphen.


Hyphens can be tricky.

New car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. No hyphen. But does this mean that only first time car buyers (regardless of the age of the car) will get the rebate? Or does it mean that only buyers of new cars will get the rebate? If we play with the hyphens, the answers are clear.

New-car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (No previously owned vehicles here.)

New car-buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (Yay! That second-hand rust bucket qualifies.)

I checked four dictionaries for “second hand” to see which ones used a hyphen: the Canadian Oxford (CANOX), the Nelson Canadian, Merriam Webster’s (MW) and the Concise Oxford. They all list second hand as an open compound as a noun (think the little hand on the clock). When used as an adjective, CANOX and the Concise Oxford hyphenate it (second-hand), and MW and Nelson both list it as a closed compound (secondhand). So don’t despair if you can’t decide if a hyphen is necessary or not. It’s not a precise science. :-)

Here’s a quick overview of some simplified guidelines (notice I didn’t say rules):

1. Check your dictionary first. You’ll be surprised how many compounds are in there. The choice is already made for you.

2. If you are in North America and writing for that market, don’t hyphenate a compound that contains a word ending in “ly.” If you are in the U.K. and writing for that market, go ahead and use a hyphen.

3. Hyphenate compound words that appear before the word they are modifying.

4. Don’t hyphenate compound words that appear after the word they are modifying.

5. Don’t hyphenate compound words that are further modified.

6. If in doubt, and the absence of a hyphen will have no impact on the meaning of the sentence, then don’t hyphenate. Too many hyphens can be distracting. The use of hyphens is so variable that a missing one is not likely to raise any eyebrows.


  1. Thanks for the info, Sharon. :D

    *sets hyphens on fire*

  2. Yeah, Danyelle, I like to hover over them with the delete key and make them squirm. :-)

  3. *is somewhat pacified*

    It's nothing more than they deserve. ;-)

  4. I think I have been hyphe-nated! :O

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