‘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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