A Perfectly Nice, Well-Intentioned Rant About Hyphens

Let's take a minute to get Grammar-Real: It has come to my attention of late that many of us are using hyphens wrong. This is not, of course, the hyphen's fault.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

It seems we're always declaring our great fondness for this punctuation mark or that one. Oh, the whimsical nature of the semicolon and how smart she makes us feel. Oh, the gorgeous curves of the ampersand, and its space-saving capabilities. Oh, the em-dash, the em-dash, the em-dash! This is all well and good and highly enjoyable; who doesn't love waxing poetic over an ellipses, or wondering what the exclamation point does when it's not on the road, traveling with the band? But let's take a minute to get Grammar-Real: It has come to my attention of late that many of us are using hyphens wrong. This is not, of course, the hyphen's fault. This is what's known as human frailty, likely caused by some sort of ill-conceived deep hubris.

While we bow to the elegance of the em-dash (hats off to you, lovely madam) and admire the skillful writer who knows how to employ the unicorn that is the en-dash (a very special mark, learn more about his charms here), the commonplace hyphen is everywhere and nowhere, a generic entity oft subbed for the real thing (i.e., the em- or en-dash), used willy-nilly, thrown in when one feels like it, as if it's salt or pepper being added to a stew. It is not! It is a hyphen. It should not just be added -- added --- added - and the reader then tasked with making heads or tails of it, too-salty, not-enough-seasoning, simply-wrong. And when it is used as a hyphen, for the express purpose of hyphenating something, it's often wrong, too. This-is-so-very-jarring.

I am not the only one with hyphen issues. Take this recent tweet of the L.A. Times' Henry Fuhrmann, who oversees the paper's copy desk:

I asked for more information, and Fuhrmann responded with some not-uncommon sentiments about hyphens: "My colleague's observation was that we use them where we don't need them, yet omit them where we do. My take: Talking about hyphens is like talking about politics. You resolve nothing, everyone's feelings get hurt, and you hold fast to your original beliefs." He added, to our grave sorrow, "I don't have specific examples handy of bad hyphenating or resulting fisticuffs, but it is a sort of partisan issue!"

True, true. Grammatical pet peeves are the secret joys, the sour candies, of every former and current copy editor, though probably even those of us who've never proofed a page in an official capacity have them too. Those of us reading (and the one of us writing) this post likely have especially strong opinions about the essential yet mundane (not to us!) topic of punctuation. One pet peeve of mine happens to be when the hyphen is not needed and appears there anyway. For instance, with adverbs that end in ly. You don't need a hyphen when writing, "What a sweetly-sung song!" or "What a beautifully-hewn artisanal handicraft!" In other cases, two words used to modify a noun might get a hyphen (a sweet-sung song, perhaps, if you're being colloquial; a well-hewn artisanal handicraft, if you must), the ly absolves you of needing that hyphen, and, in fact, it is wrong to include it. Another pet peeve of mine: improper hyphenation when designating ages. You do write "a seven-year-old girl." You don't write, however, "the girl is seven-years-old." In the latter case, you do not need the hyphens, and when they are included, they are like daggers to my soul, a wasted piece of punctuation bound for purgatory. It's too sad to consider. A misused hyphen, a bitter travesty.

Barring exceptions for style, there are, however, some pretty basic rules about hyphenation that can help. Elsewhere, yes, punctuation may become complicated, but getting the majority of hyphens you're going to contend with right isn't too terribly difficult. Many words are in the dictionary. In fact, most of them are. And you can look them up. So, instead of just slapping a hyphen in between car and port, do a check. What do you know? It's one word. You just saved yourself a valuable hyphen. Repeat with other words; this is really the simplest and most effective rule of hyphenation! Mignon Fogarty, aka, the Grammar Girl, does point out that hyphens tend to come with a lot of "exceptions"—so maybe a lot of this is the hyphen's fault, or at least you can blame it to some extent. Some brief tips from her: Check the dictionary; hyphenate two words to apply them as a single unit before a noun but not after it; check a dictionary also when hyphenating within a single word (re-press or repress?); hyphenate your spelled-out numbers (like twenty-nine, seventy-seven, or thirty-three ... don't forget your fractions, either).

But the hardest thing about hyphenation is that words are in flux, too. So what was once a compound word might not be (see below, my opinions on e-mail) as time passes and different spellings become accepted and even the norm. This is just the trickiness of grammar.

Again, excluding those sorts of difficulties, Purdue's Online Writing Lab covers the basics nicely:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun, but not when those two words come after a noun. The well-known author or the author is well known.
  • Hyphenate compound numbers. (As per the above.)
  • "Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters" (also per the above; re-sign vs. resign, for another example).
  • Hyphenate prefixes, like ex-husband; words with the suffix -elect; "between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters." (Anti-American, pre-Civil War, mid-1980s, and T-shirt, for a few additional examples.) [update, from a careful reader: “Pre–Civil War” takes an en-dash, not a hyphen. Thank you!]
  • Fortunately, many of us online don't have to worry about bad breaks, though Purdue goes into that, too. 

I'd add, include the hyphens in proper names when you must, but feel free to mercilessly judge anyone with more than one hyphen in his or her full name. Anyone else is hogging the world supply of hyphens. Those of us without hyphens in our names get a plus-one at the hyphen dance. Use that hyphen wisely.

On the other (soul-scraping) side of hyphenation is when necessary hyphens get left out. Sometimes you need them. Your "sexcrazed friend" is really sex-crazed, though he or she might not like to hear you say it. Likewise, that "Elvis like character" you keep running into in Vegas who serenades you and your "sister in law" "every-time" you see him; he needs help. Where do those poor family-less hyphens go? Who knows, but it can't be good. We demand hyphen redistribution at the hyphen factory in these hyphen-unjust cases.

I'll put this out there, too, though: I'm against e-mail, but, yes, it is in the dictionary, there with the hyphen, all bold and yappy, so if I'm to be anything but hypocritical I should probably adopt it. (I won't. I'm staunchly anti-email-hyphen. Give it a few years and that hyphen will be toast, and don't even try to convince me on "on-line.") And anyway, sometimes good people make bad hyphen mistakes. We live and learn, living-and-learning people!

Oh, one final thing. It's Spider-Man, which the courageous people of Twitter are reminding people daily. Or one of them is, anyway. Kudos to you, @RespecttheHyphen; you are doing the lord's [no hyphen necessary] work. ---------------

*No hyphens were harmed in the making of this post. Probably-not, anyway.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.