I Hate Hyphens
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
A fellow editor told me the other day that she loves hyphens – she's bonkers. But, it was an unsolicited statement that got me thinking. I wondered why – when we were talking about something quite random – she needed to out herself as a hyphen lover. I’m not – and I am. I don’t know how I feel about them, but I do know that I agree with Pamela Frankau.
‘Hyphens, like cats, are capable of arousing tenderness or shudders.’
Winston Churchill stated that hyphens were ‘a blemish to be avoided wherever possible,’ and Woodrow Wilson ironically commented that the hyphen was ‘the most un-American thing in the world.’
I decided I wanted to tackle my sense of dread head-on and purge myself of the cat-like shuddering tenderness that makes me eat more chocolate than I normally would when faced with a hyphen-scattered document.
Before I start the greatest hyphenation-of-my-life exploration, we need to recognise some differences in these little-line thingies.
Dashes and Hyphens
Hyphens are different from dashes. They go like this:
En dash: –
Em dash: —
2em dash: ——
How are dashes used?
The en dash (en rule)
The en dash is the width of the letter n. It is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash. This dash can be used in a couple of ways, which varies depending on which manual of style you are using. In the UK, most publishers use the en dash with a space either side of it.
Used in a pair, they can replace parentheses (round brackets) or commas.
It was – as far as I could tell – the only dog in the group that didn’t like going for a walk.
Rea – the little ginger dog – liked to howl when she was happy.
While parentheses are often a relaxed hint to the reader, the en dash is an attention seeker.
They can link two parts of a sentence, in place of a colon.
The bus was late today – we missed our lecture.
They can be used to link concepts, ideas or ranges of numbers, with no spaces either side.
The salary for being a dog walker is £25,000–£30,000 a year.
The Devon–Cornwall debate on whether the cream or the jam goes first, carries on.
The length of the pen was around 5–6 cm.
They can also be used to link words of equal importance, with no spaces either side.
We used the London–Paris overnight service to get there before the rush hour started.
The em dash (em rule or long dash)
The em dash is the width of a letter m. It is also used like parentheses or colons—to indicate a pause, addition or embellishment. It is used in pairs, to mark off information or ideas that are not necessary to the understanding of the rest of the sentence. This is the usual type of dash in the US.
There should be no punctuation before or after an em dash.
Most dogs—like those in the photograph—enjoy a home-cooked sausage.
In the example above 'like those in the photograph' can be removed without the sentence changing meaning.
When used in fiction, it can be a tool to indicate an interruption and should be used with no space either side of it.
‘I told you that I—’
The 2em dash
The em dash can be doubled to indicate a sentence-ending ellipsis or the exclusion of letters. This can usually be seen in dialogue and is more common in the US. Visually, it’s quite ugly though so I try to avoid it.
Hyphens are different from dashes and can often cause havoc if they’re not understood properly.
What do they do?
They indicate words that should be read as a unit – avoiding ambiguity among a series of words. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Hyphens are one of the trickiest bits of punctuation in the English language. The Oxford Manual of Style states that ‘If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.’ There’s a lot of truth in that statement!
The only way to battle the madness is to rugby tackle those hyphens to the floor and strip them bare.
A prefix is half a word such as anti-, ex-, post-, and pre-.
The use of a hyphen after a prefix is quite simple and comes into play with the use of a proper adjective or a proper noun (i.e. Britain, Victorian, Australian).
I’ve never met a historian who is so anti-Victorian.
We are visiting quite a few non-EC countries this summer.
Hyphens are also used when there are repeated letters in a word, and without one, the word would look a bit odd or could be mispronounced.
When hyphens aren’t used in some words, the meaning of the sentence can change dramatically.
This book is so old it needs recovering.
This book is so old it needs re-covering.
They lost the manager’s birthday card and made everyone resign.
They lost the manager’s birthday card and made everyone re-sign.
I must re-press the shirt.
I must repress the shirt.
It’s so cold out there this morning; I need to de-ice the car windscreen.
It’s so cold out there this morning; I need to deice the car windscreen.
The Compound Adjective (modifier)
An adjective describes a noun, e.g. ‘the ginger dog.’
A compound adjective does the same thing, but it’s made up of more than one word, like ‘part-time nurse.’
A compound adjective typically has a hyphen when it comes before a noun.
Rea is a well-behaved dog.
This is an all-too-common mistake.
This needs to be part of the decision-making process.
The group was full of rowdy 11-year-old schoolboys.
We went up in a hot-air balloon for my birthday.
I was awarded a first-class degree.
There always has to be one, doesn’t there!
If the first word ends in ‘ly’, like in ‘a specially designed kitchen’, we don’t need a hyphen.
An often-overlooked rule for hyphens: the adverb ‘very’ and adverbs ending in ‘ly‘ are not hyphenated.
Incorrect: the very-elegant watch
Incorrect: the finely-tuned watch
This rule applies only to adverbs. The following two examples are correct because the ‘ly‘ words are not adverbs:
Correct: the friendly-looking dog
Correct: a family-owned business
How a hyphen can change meaning
She had a concealed weapons permit.
She had a concealed-weapons permit.
Two hundred odd members of the university marched in protest.
Two-hundred-odd members of the university marched in protest.
Small business managers from all around the world attended the London conference.
Small-business managers from all around the world attended the London conference.
When not to use a hyphen
Hyphens shouldn’t be used in a noun phrase or adjectival phrase that follows a noun.
A well-known fact
The facts are well known
A tenth-century manuscript
In the tenth century
It was an up-to-date list
The list was up to date
We need a long-term solution
We need to sort this out long term
I don’t know about you, but this is as far as my brain wants to go with this today! So, I’m going to save this exciting make-you-wanna-dance subject for another moment of hyphenation merriment.
If two words are being used for one single description, put a hyphen between them if the description comes before the word it is describing.
Hyphens' primary purpose is to glue words together.
Hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.
The adverb very and adverbs ending in 'ly' are not hyphenated.
Hyphens are often used to tell the ages of people and things.
Never hesitate to add a hyphen if it solves a possible problem.
Hyphenate all words beginning with the prefixes self-, ex- (i.e., former), and all-.
Use a hyphen with the prefix re when omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.
Suffixes are not usually hyphenated. Some exceptions: -style, -elect, -free, -based.
Many editors do not hyphenate certain well-known expressions such as ice cream or high school.
If you can avoid using a hyphen, do.
If you think there’s any risk of confusion, stick one in.
Don’t let them turn you to alcohol – or chocolate!
London – Copyeditor | Proofreader | Copywriter