, ,


I like few things as much as I like writing, and when you have been a writer in one organization for long enough, it is expected you will begin to edit the works of junior writers. Now that  is a job I genuinely dislike, because the glaring errors I see in my editor’s job make me want to bite off the writers’ heads. One of the most common errors is definitely the overuse of the article “The”. The other one? An incorrect use of hyphens.

That brings me today to simplify the rules of hyphenation in the English language. By definition, a hyphen is a punctuation mark used to join ordinarily separate words into single words. That said, there are rules for where you can hyphenate, and where it is incorrect.

1. The first place where you can use a hyphen is to join two words that describe a third word as a single adjective.

  • Honey-coated almonds
  • Thin-crust pizza
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Well-known landmark
  • Long-term relationship

In these examples, two words are coming together to describe a third word. So those two words are now a compound adjective, ie, different parts of speech combining to make an adjective. In the example, “a well-known landmark”, well is an adverb followed by another descriptive word, and together they mean famous, which is an adjective, because it describes what kind of landmark it is. So rule no. 1: use hyphens to create compound adjectives such as these.  But please note that a hyphen is used only when a compound adjective comes before the noun and the not after:

My pizza had a thin crust.

2. Likewise, numbers can be compound. All numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine take hyphens. Do remember that this rule applies to only numbers between 21 and 99. So while you write:

My father is sixty-eight years old.

You will not write,

 My house is two-hundred years old.

3. Also, all spelled-out (see my first point here?) fractions are hyphenated:

A two-thirds majority elected the Mayor this year.

4. A hyphen is used to clarify meaning. For words that can change in meaning with the addition of a prefix, a hyphen makes the meaning clear. For eg

The Senator re-signed the document.

In this case, the hyphen separates the word re-sign. Ie, to sign again, from the word resign, ie, to relinquish his professional designation. If we hadn’t hyphenated the word, here is how it would read:

The Senator resigned the document,

and this would make no grammatical sense at all.

5. Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, all-; with the suffix -elect; between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters:

  • Ex-wife
  • Self-congratulatory, but selfish or selfless
  • All-consuming
  • President-elect
  • Anti-French, but antiaircraft
  • T-shirt
  • T-bone
  • Pre-1900s

6. When you are breaking lines, use a hyphen at syllables, ie, break-age where break- comes at the end of the line and age follows in the next line. When you are using already hyphenated words, break line at the hyphen: mass-hysteria, where the line breaks at mass- at the end of the line and is followed by hysteria in the next line





7. However, when a word ends in ing, and a single final consonant in the root word is doubled before the suffix ing, it is accepted if you break the line between the consonants



8. Also, hyphenate prefixes ending in a or I only when the second word begins with the same letter:

  • Ultra-aggressive
  • Semi-invalid

So we will not hyphenate prefixes and words when the letters are different at the end and in the beginning:

  • Antiaircraft
  • Noncompliance
  • Semiconscious

The post is getting really long now, so I shall stop here with these basic rules in place. Another time, I will write about things like suspended hyphens and how a wrongly placed hyphen can alter the meaning of a sentence. Just remind me of this some time, ok?