The Efficient Editor: Should Hyphenation Be Consistent?

Video transcript

Should hyphenation be consistent? The answer is yes, sometimes, and no… depending on what you mean by consistent. Welcome to today’s episode of The Efficient Editor.

Typically, you use a hyphen for clarity… Or when your reference dictionary says to… Or when your house style includes it… However, that doesn’t mean you always hyphenate the same phrase wherever it appears. Context matters.

For instance, if you want to call someone a silly ass, you don’t need a hyphen, but if you want to say they have a silly-ass idea, you do, because otherwise it could be read as meaning a silly idea about an ass.

Is that example hard to believe? Not as hard to believe as the idea that anyone might misread “hard to believe” if it’s not hyphenated; but we hyphenate it before a noun just in case!

The Chicago Manual of Style calls these compound modifiers, and tells us we’re safe hyphenating them before the noun they describe and not hyphenating them after it.

Style manuals usually make an exception when the first part of the modifier is an adverb ending in "ly" because it’s impossible to misread that.

Sometimes you might even need more than one hyphen. But the number of hyphens you use can make an important difference, because the hyphens show which words go together and which don’t. So you can have a squid that eats giant fish, or a giant squid that eats fish, or a giant fish that’s eating squid.

It’s all guided by clarity. So it’s simple, right? The problem is that different people have different ideas about what’s clear enough.

And there’s also the question of tradition and common usage. Terms that start out with hyphens often lose them gradually. But not always.

Sometimes you just have to choose which version you want in your house style and be consistent. It’s nice to have a little help in enforcing consistency, so PerfectIt includes a hyphenation consistency check. In seconds, it shows you each possible inconsistency, even in a book-length document.

Then it’s up to you to look at the context and decide which should be hyphenated and which should not. You’re in control of every editing decision. PerfectIt just helps you make those decisions faster. If you’ve never used it before, PerfectIt is available for Macs or PCs with MS Word. It has a free trial so you can see how it speeds up your editing before you purchase.

If this video has helped you, please share it with your friends. And stay tuned for the next episode of The Efficient Editor!