Hyphens: Over-used or Under-used?

typewriterThe new rule for hyphens seems to be: “When in doubt, hyphenate—or just omit them altogether.”  But this is not a good rule of thumb to live by. Believe it or not, hyphenating in the wrong place, or the wrong instance, can give a whole new meaning to your words.

In this day and age of blogging, many rules of usage have gone out the window.    Maybe you’re not concerned with becoming a published author, so you feel it doesn’t matter whether your blog posts are correctly punctuated.  But perhaps you do care about how you are perceived by your readers.

Not every reader is discerning when it comes to punctuation. But those that are can make instant evaluations about the level of care you put into your post.

The punctuation mark I plan to cover today is the hyphen.  We don’t give much thought to the hyphen these days, but it’s still an important part of writing and conveying a message. The younger generation has become accustomed to omitting it. With the use of text messages, the English language is mutilated beyond recognition on a daily basis.

Recently, I was reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Truss opened my eyes to the importance of properly using a hyphen, and how a misplaced hyphen can change the meaning of a phrase or sentence.

So, why do we need hyphens?  Hyphens help avoid ambiguity or vagueness.

A re-formed rock band is not the same as a reformed rock band.  Re-marked has a different meaning to remarked.

Numbers that are spelled out should be hyphenated: twenty-three, fifty-eight.

Fractions written out should also be hyphenated: two-thirds, four-fifths. But there is an exception: When a fraction is used as a noun, do not use a hyphen.

A two-thirds vote is needed.

Two thirds of the community voted.

Linking nouns with nouns or adjectives with adjectives is done with a hyphen: London-Brighton train, American-French relations, long-term, skin-deep.

Do not use a hyphen between an adjective and an adverb that ends with
-ly.  “Superbly talented chef” does not need a hyphen.

When qualifying another noun:  Stainless steel is not hyphenated unless you are speaking of a stainless-steel kitchen.  Novels can be written in the 18th century or they can be 18th-century novels.  The bus can leave at seven o’clock or you can catch the seven-o’clock bus.

Some prefixes need to be hyphenated: un-American, anti-American. It’s funny that Woodrow Wilson said the hyphen was “the most un-American thing in the world,” and you’ll notice that un-American is hyphenated.

Hyphens are used to break words at the end of a line.  This is not generally needed with writing online—or in programs such as Word that use word-wrap—but in the publishing world the hyphen is still needed for printing procedures.

Words that need to be divided should only be done between syllables.

Never divide single syllable words like laugh, brought, save.

Never break a one-letter syllable from the rest of the word:

a-dore, e-mit, i-ris should never be hyphenated.

Hyphenate after two letters at the end of the line, but never carry a two-letter ending to the next line.

Acceptable: be-lieve, re-call, in-vite.

Not acceptable: tight-en, shov-el, over-ly.

Words with a double consonant can be divided between the consonants: shim-mer, oc-cur, ship-ping.

Never divide a proper noun or proper adjective: Polish, Yonkers, Canadian.

The hyphen has a dual problem. We tend to hyphenate words that don’t require it and jam together words that do. Both situations can make your meaning unclear or less readable.

Image credit: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/97/250133728_1feee80d2f.jpg

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