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issue 51

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Training Bulletin Issue 51

Hyphenosaurus Rex: how the hyphen is becoming extinct

The vast plains of business writing were once home to great herds of hyphens, gambolling openly on the veldt. Over the years their natural habitat, the typewriter, has disappeared. Today, hyphens in the wild are almost extinct; ragged remains of a few flocks are all that are left of this once-common form of punctuation. Its survival as a species depends on a few breeding pairs captive in the writing of academics and pedants.

So what are the correct conventions for using hyphens? Read on for some simple decisions you can take to ensure your usage is consistent and up to date.

Hyphens are nearly extinct

There are three main uses of hyphens. One of them has almost completely vanished, one is on the way out, and only the remaining one really needs to concern you.

Almost completely vanished: breaking up words

Back in the prehistoric days before word processors, when manual typewriters ruled the earth, we maximised use of space by typing up to the end of a line then break-
ing a word between syllables, with a hyphen, just like that.

These days, word processing software automatically wraps text or justifies it. You actually have to switch hyphenation on in Microsoft Word®, under Page Layout, if you're interested, to force it to hyphenate. Note that, even with hyphenation switched off, Word will still hyphenate examples of compound adjectives such as ‘once-common’ if they fall in the right place on your page.

On the way out: separating prefixes and suffixes

Once upon a time, I would have written “pre-historic” above, not prehistoric, as we used to put hyphens between a prefix and the word it attached to. Most people these days consider this to be pretty old fashioned, or even old-fashioned. Or should that be oldfashioned? The spell checker accepts the first two but not the third so you should have a note in your organisation's style guide to state your preference regarding space or hyphen (old fashioned or old-fashioned) for words that come up a lot.

Play it safe and use hyphens though when there's a chance you could confuse meanings, in words like resent or re-sent, and recover or re-cover.

Still with us and causing trouble: compound words

English often makes up a new word out of a couple of others. These can be nouns such as website or help desk, verbs such as right-click or freeze-dry, or adjectives such as badly-written or fast-approaching.

Compound nouns – how many syllables?

Nouns are rarely hyphenated. Compound nouns made up of single syllable words (boyfriend, bedroom, weekend or website) are more likely but not guaranteed to be all one word. Exceptions include ice cream, test tube and spot check.

Compound nouns made up of words of more than one syllable are more likely to be written as separate words – team leader, office manager and distance learning.

If in doubt, or if your style guide doesn't cover this, search the internet for the exact usage by putting it in double quotes and go with the version that gets the most hits as that will be the most common. For example, “teamleader” gets just over 2.5 million hits but “team leader” gets over 56 million.

Compound verbs – avoid confusion

Use hyphens if it makes the meaning clearer. “Right-click” can't be read as “Right, now I want you to click…”

Compound adjectives – it depends…

1. I thought it was a badly-written report.
2. I thought the report was badly written.

Rule: use a hyphen if the adjective comes before the noun (1) but not after (2).

1. The accounts department has nine year old photocopiers.

This is ambiguous – there's more than one possible meaning.

2. The accounts department has nine-year-old photocopiers.

This means the accounts department has an unspecified number of photocopiers that are each nine years old.

3. The accounts department has nine year-old photocopiers.

This means that the accounts department has nine photocopiers that are each one year old.

Rule: be clear about what you're trying to say!

No wonder it's hard to work out!

Believe it or not, this is actually a simplified explanation of hyphens, and we haven't even looked at dashes. When I researched this article, I found one source with up to eight rules just describing compound words, and another that was full of terms like endocentric, exocentric and copulative compounds.

We try in all our training courses to focus on common, basic information rather than baffling you with unfamiliar words (I had been about to say “obscure terminology” just then, but stopped myself in time.)

If you'd like to know more about common punctuation and how to make sure your usage is up-to-date, take a look at our Brush up your English! course outline, or consider participating in a Punctuation essentials webinar.

Find out more about them by calling us on 01235 60 30 22 or email

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