Adventures with Punctuation: the Hyphen


The hyphen is used to connect words or parts of words. A compound word is a group of words that together mean something different than any of the words do individually. So, a right-of-way (the right to travel over a piece of land) is different from right or way; it becomes a new word. Many compounds use hyphens: some words always take them (mother-in-law and merry-go-round and twenty-two, for instance) while others take them depending on context. Some compound words are never hyphenated, such as sailboat, wildcat, or redhead. Often, compounds that were once spelled with hyphens lose them over time. Think of the word e-mail, which is now commonly written as email, or the archaic to-morrow, which we now write as tomorrow. Hyphen usage can be confusing, but a good dictionary and the principles below are a good place to start. 

When to use a hyphen

Use a hyphen to clarify what might be ambiguous. For instance, there’s a difference between recover and re-cover, as any doctor or upholsterer can tell you. Using a fine-tooth comb is good, but using a fine tooth-comb is…definitely not. 

Use a hyphen with certain prefixes, like anti, half, non, and semi. Examples: anti-aircraft and anti-fascist (but not anticlimax or antidote); half-hearted; non-violent and non-existent (but not nonstop); semi-conscious and semi-automatic

Use a hyphen to separate identical letters, like re-emerge (instead of reemerge). However, as we’ve been learning, there are plenty of exceptions (override, overrule, underrate), so check your dictionary to be sure.  

Use a hyphen to connect a compound modifier when it comes before the word it modifies, but don’t hyphenate the compound if it comes after the word it modifies. Confused? Let’s look at some examples. 

  • Her well-liked pet tortoise (hyphenated)
  • Her pet tortoise is well liked (not hyphenated)
  • They went to the on-site laundry room (hyphenated)
  • They went to the laundry room on site (not hyphenated)

Some things to watch out for

  • *Don’t confuse the hyphen with the dash, which we cover here
  • *When your first word is an adverb ending in -ly, don’t use a hyphen. For example, “a widely admired production” 

For more punctuation mark discourse, check out these posts on the semicolon, colon, and dash

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