The role of hyphens in writing

‘The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to the English education.’
H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage

In my recent e-newsletters I answered a couple of questions about hyphen usage. A reader commented that I seemed to have a grudge against hyphens because I said that there is a tendency to write compound terms as either one word or two, rather than hyphenate them.

To clarify, I don’t like unnecessary hyphens, but do believe hyphens have a place in the language.

Hyphens help form new words
Hyphens are often used when two words gravitate together to form a new word (web site, web-site, website). Some words are also formed by the addition of a single letter (e-newsletter) or a prefix (re-enter).

Dictionaries often lag behind common usage as this melding process occurs. For example, shortlist is now commonly used, but some dictionaries still recommend short list for a noun and short-list for a verb. And in some dictionaries, break-in is a noun, but break in is the verb.

With these two examples, I prefer shortlist for both the noun and the verb, but would probably still use the Macquarie Dictionary’s distinction for break in/break-in.

Two words become descriptive
An area where I think hyphens have a positive place is when two words join together to modify or describe the following word. For example, I would say She is a full-time worker, but I would not use a hyphen if I said She works full time.

In most instances, the meaning is clear whether you use a hyphen or not, but in some examples, the hyphen can change the meaning. Compare:

three monthly reports (three reports)
three-monthly reports (every three months)

Hyphens with prefixes can add clarity
Hyphens often drop out of words formed with prefixes (coordinate, semicolon), but sometimes the use of a hyphen can aid clarity. For example, re-cover has a different meaning from recover.

Some people think hyphens also help with pronunciation, for example, co-operation. However, speech and writing have drifted further apart in recent times, and many words that look odd, such as cooperation, are now acceptable.

Are there cultural differences in hyphen use?
A colleague raised the question of whether hyphen use is cultural, with Americans using fewer than the English. Where do Australia and New Zealand fit – noncommittal or non-committal?

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