The Humble Hyphen

Long before the digital age, our brilliant ancestors devised a simple code to expedite communications.

That code is called punctuation, and one important symbol is the humble hyphen.

Hyphens may be small, but they're mighty. Their absence or presence and use convey a surprising amount of information.

You already know this, but let's do a quick review. Hyphens merge separate things so they function as a unit. For example, we use hyphens to:
Join a prefix to another word (self-serve, mid-July, etc.)
Connect two names (Bradley Smythe-Jones, Sheri-Ann)
Deal with compound numbers (forty-one)
Communicate fractions (two-thirds) in text
Link compound adjectives BEFORE a noun, so they read as one (This is state-of-the-art technology)
Hyphens are also used to divide one word, at the end of a line of text. For example:
Your report contains many complicated ideas, but you've ex-
pressed them with great clarity.
Eliminating hyphens from compound modifiers, even when they precede the noun, is a common trend. This is A Bad Idea. Why? Skipping the hyphen is like omitting a crucial symbol from a string of code. Things just won’t work quite right.

Here's why. Your brain recognizes a hyphen and instantly knows "those words are intended to express a unified thought." Without the hyphen alert, you must pause to decipher what the writer intended. A missing hyphen can lead to some funny interpretations:
Without: He is a small time crook.
With: He is a small-time crook.
When in doubt, choose clarity over fashion. Here are a few handy hyphen hints:
Do use hyphens to
Join words that work together AND precede a noun (see above)
Form “ex” words (ex-patriot, ex-pilot)
Form “self” words (self-guided, self-directed)
Do not use hyphens to
Join "ly" modifiers (He is a highly qualified candidate)
Connect compound modifiers after the noun (This technology is state of the art)
Today, “co” words are usually written without the hyphen: cooperate, copilot, coordinate. The same is true for many “re” words: refocus, redesign, reengineer. Ditto for “wide” words: areawide, citywide, districtwide.

Last but not least, there’s another little thing hyphens do. They tell us when a new idea, captured by hyphenated words, has evolved into a distinct, recognizable concept in its own right.

For example, e-mail combined "electronic" and "mail" into a new entity, email. The evolution looks like this:
1. electronic mail
2. electronic-mail
3. e-mail
4. email
Up through the 1940s, for example, the word “tonight” was often written as “to-night.” The digital age has given us countless examples that demonstrate how words express evolving concepts. Many people still use "on-line," but in my world it's been one word (online) for a long time.

English is remarkable, robust and resilient. Hyphens are small and humble elements in that picture, but they’re powerful tools. Use them wisely and well.


It’s Official, Email has No Hyphen
Before & After | Blogging Through Time
The Great Comma Controversy
Pesky Periods & Parentheses
Writing | Respect the Semicolon
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