Last updated: 24 September, 2019
Hyphens are like little screws that hold words together. Now, if you’ve ever gone to a hardware store to buy screws, you know that there are a lot of different kinds of screws. But hyphens? They all look the same – well, within any specific font, anyway.
So you might think there’s just one kind of hyphen.
You’d be wrong. Full-on, abso-bloody-lutely wrong.
Here, have a look at the different kinds of hyphens there are. You’ll probably need to know the difference when you have a dark-alley encounter with one.
Some match-ups come pre-hyphenated and your dictionary will tell you so. Don’t bother writing mother in law without hyphens unless you want to look like a Johnny-come-lately. A few are more thought-provoking: do you prefer blood-stained or bloodstained? I mean, if you have to have either.
There are some hyphens that are like British boarding-school ties: “We cannot have ice-cream to-morrow but perhaps at the week-end.” Even in the UK, some of these hyphens are rare and can only be found in test-tubes.
Some words started out hyphenated and over time have generally gotten closed up, but you can still keep that hyphen if you want to look old-fashioned as you send an e-mail through cyber-space. Just don’t be a cry-baby about it.
Sometimes you have sets of words that are like shipboard romances (perhaps threesomes or even more): they have a just-this-once joining to modify some cruise-ship-lonely noun, and then they go their separate ways.
On the other hand, some hyphenated pairs are inseparable and absolutely must have the hyphen. You learned many of them as a kid: tick-tock, see-saw, ding-dong… no need to shilly-shally about these hyphens. Especially if they’re part of a brand name: Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay will make sure you don’t forget that.
You may wonder why we hyphenate numbers, but ask twenty six foot soldiers what they think (twenty-six foot soldiers or twenty six-foot soldiers?). I know if someone pours me a glass of Scotch and in the end I drink three fifths, it matters if I drink three-fifths of the glass or three fifths of Scotch.
Numbers aren’t the only place hyphens clarify things. A small-business tax is clear; a small business tax might be a small tax on business. And if you get a contract renewal from your employer, it sure matters whether you re-sign or resign.
Some once-in-a-lifetime or clarifying hyphens are also vanishing hyphens: they show up when the words are before a noun but not when they’re after one. That might seem like a hard-to-explain concept, but it’s not really hard to understand. A hyphen helps when you’re talking about a double-jointed modifier, but it’s not really needed when you say the modifier is double jointed.
If you see a screw sticking out somewhere, you know something’s wrong. But sometimes a hyphen hangs out like a plug at the end of a twenty- to thirty-foot extension cord just to show that it, too, attaches to that noun.
Some hyphens are there to keep your eyes from crossing. It’s easier to use co-operation to re-emerge from a cave-in than to use cooperation to reemerge from a cavein. Such jam-togethers can make a reader feel semiilliterate (let’s make that semi-illiterate).
Sometimes you see something on the page that makes you lean over to a coworker and – hmm, have you ever wondered how anyone orks cows? Sorry, you lean over to a co-worker and show a picture of a box that says 100% HUMAN QUALITY DOG FOOD. Boy, a hyphen in HUMAN-QUALITY could save lives. A variation of this is the sucker-avoiding hyphen – P.T. Barnum would not have lured in as many people to his six foot tall man eating chicken if they’d realized it was just a six-foot-tall man eating chicken, not a six-foot-tall man-eating chicken.
This is for when you go to the beer store to get a bunch of tall-boys. Depending on your preferences, you may or may not also want a bunch of tall boys.
This hyphen is like train tracks on the Chicago-Seattle route. It’s a connector, similar to the one used when you have people or businesses getting together: the Smith-Jones engagement or the Firstco-Nextco merger. (Well, someone might be getting railroaded in those, too.)
Some double-barrelled family names are hyphenated. Some aren’t. It’s Gabriel García Márquez, but Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez. Upper-class Brits can be quite fond of hyphens, as George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers will attest, though don’t ask Helena Bonham Carter about it.
Some hyphens belong in a word, but not where they ended up. Well, in a highs-peed office environment, you or one of your cow-orkers will surely make the occasional fingers-lip.
Some places you often see hyphens don’t need hyphens at all. The idea of hyphens is to add clarity, and when you have an adverb modifying an adjective that modifies a noun, you get a completely obvious result without grabbing a hyphen to make it completely-obvious.
And then sometimes we just jam word parts together in ways we’re not supposed to but do any-bloody-way. Could we leave out the hyphens? Perhaps, but it might seem… unfreakingpleasant.
You don’t need a whole bunch of different drawers for all these hyphens – they’re all the same size and shape, after all. But you might want to keep track of where you’re using them and where you’re not. The best way to do that is with PerfectIt. It can instantly check all of the hyphenation in your document to make sure that you’ve been consistent. And you can build your hyphenation preferences into it. If you’re hyphenating something in some places and not in others, PerfectIt will notice and let you know so you can have truly well-punctuated compounds. (Or is that well punctuated?)
PerfectIt is available for PC or Mac, so download the free trial today and have a look-see!