The Hyphen

March 26, 2010


I apologize for not updating my blog as often lately. I’ll reveal the reason for the delay in my next blog so stay tuned!

At this time, let’s continue our discussion on the punctuation marks of the English language.   We discussed the dash several posts back.  This time we are going to look at the hyphen (-), which is often confused with the dash.   First, the dash is actually a bit longer than the hyphen.  Also, there is usually no space on either side of the hyphen (e.g. X-ray) unless it is part of a suspended compound:   

Ex. The full- and part-time employees went on strike. (Meaning: The full-time and part-time employees went on strike.)

There are four main uses of the hyphen:

1)      Writing numbers and fractions

He ate ninety-nine apples and got sick.

The athlete won the race by three-tenths of a second.

2)      Creating compounds

Some compounds always take on a hyphen.  The best way to remember these are to see them often and to memorize them.  When in doubt, check a dictionary!

Ex.       My sister-in-law came over to visit us.

Over-the-counter medicine tends to be more affordable than prescribed medicine.

Automobiles are not mass-produced inside a factory.

Sometimes, depending on the writer, a word could be hyphenated or not!    

Ex.       ice cream or ice-cream?

Use a hyphen to join two or more words acting as an adjective before a noun. Yet, when they follow the noun they modify, they are not hyphenated.

Ex.      The knife used to cut the cake is made of stainless steel.

             The stainless-steel knife was used to cut the cake.

The four-year-old child called the paramedics just in time to save his family.

The kid who saved his family was only four years old.

Never hyphenate compounds that are created with –ly adverbs even they come before nouns and act as an adjective.

Ex.       The beautifully designed house is owned by Oprah.

(NOT The beautifully-designed house is owned by Oprah.)

Oprah’s house is beautifully designed.

3)      Adding prefixes or suffixes.

There is no hard and fast rule about this as British English tend to hyphenate words that American English may not hyphenate.

            pre-school (British English)

            preschool (American English)

Yet, the prefixes ex-, self-, and all- almost always require a hyphen.

She still talks to her ex-husband.

She is acting tough to prove that she could also be self-sufficient and does not need to depend on a husband.

The suffix –elect is also always accompanied by a hyphen.

The president-elect angered many of his supporters when he was found to have accepted bribes.  

Hyphens are also used when separating out a prefix and a word with the first letter capitalized, with figures, or with letters.

The T-shirt has been popular ever since its invention sometime after the mid-1800s and became a piece of outer wear post-World War II.

4)      Avoiding confusion or “letter collision” but this is not absolute

shell-like (adj; having the shape of a seashell) vs. childlike (adj; like a child)

(Childlike does not create confusion.)

Sometimes the addition of a hyphen changes a word’s meaning.  Be careful about this!  Usually, one of these involves a prefix so its meaning may not be too difficult to guess.  Hear are some examples. 

re-mark (verb; to mark something again) vs. remark (noun; a comment)

re-formed (verb; to form again) vs. reformed (adj; changed or improved)

The placement of the hyphen in phrases with three or more words is a determinant of their meaning Can you guess the meaning of each of the following?  Try to guess before you look at the answers at the bottom of the page!

The forest has five-hundred-year-old trees.

The forest has five hundred-year-old trees.

The forest has five hundred year-old trees.

The forest has five-hundred-year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains trees that are 500 years old.)

The forest has five hundred-year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains five trees that are 100 years old.)

The forest has five hundred year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains five hundred trees that are 1 year old.)