To hyphen or not to hyphen?

I do a lot of writing and so am often confronted with the question of whether or not to use a hyphen. I am too lazy to develop an overarching theory to govern their use and so use it idiosyncratically, depending on my mood and whether it ‘feels’ right.

Mary Norris writes about the history of the symbol and the various policies regarding their use. I was amazed to learn that there are actual books written about it.

The invention of the hyphen has been credited to Dionysius Thrax, a Greek grammarian who worked at the Library of Alexandria in the second century B.C. Mahdavi writes, “The elegant, sublinear bow-shaped U-hyphen . . . was used to fuse words and highlight words that belonged together.” Much later, in fifteenth-century Germany, Johannes Gutenberg used hyphens liberally (in their modern form) to justify the columns of heavy Gothic type in his Bible.

The hyphen continues to serve a dual purpose: it both connects and separates. In justified text, it divides into appropriate syllables a word that lands on a line break, a task that machines have not yet mastered; and it is instrumental in the formation of compounds, where it is famously subject to erosion. Yesteryear’s “ball-point pen” became the “ballpoint,” “wild-flowers” evolved into “wildflowers,” and “teen-age” found acceptance as “teenage” in most outlets (but not in this one).

The hyphen underwent an assault from a different corner in 2007, when Angus Stevenson, an editor of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, removed the hyphens from sixteen thousand words. Some words he closed up (“bumblebee”), others he divided in two (“fig leaf”). When people objected, he argued that the general public didn’t understand the rules governing the hyphen and didn’t care enough to learn them.

Then there is the problem of the ‘non-breaking’ hyphen, where you use the symbol but do not want to have it break up something at the end of the line. For example, the US interstate highway labeling system consists of things like ‘I-80’. Preventing it from being split requires extra programming.

Figuring out the rules for when to use a hyphen seems like hard work. I think I will continue my hit-or-miss approach.


  1. says

    I don’t use hyphens even where most insist on it, like numbers (e.g. twenty five). Clarity is the key issue. In the phrase you quoted, “sublinear bow-shaped”, shaped is unmistakenly an adjective with the hyphen, but could be mistaken for a verb without it.

    Where I will staunchly use them by the book is hyphenated names or foreign phrases that English adopts (e.g. vis-a-vis).

  2. moarscienceplz says

    “Bumble-bee” feels very Victorian to me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it hyphenated. I do think it should be “twenty-five” and not “twenty five”, just to make clear we are discussing a single number and not two. “”Fig leaf” seems right. Even though a fig leaf has received a metaphorical usage, it is still the leaf of a fig tree primarily.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Just to amplify on “twenty five”, what would you make of “twenty five cent cigars”? Is is 20 five-cent cigars, or 25-cent cigars, or 25 cent-cigars?

  4. Matt G says

    I have to look up the hyphenation of individual cases often because I haven’t bothered to learn rules. I also will often use what “feels” right.

  5. Kimpatsu5050 says

    Mano, there is clearly a difference between a man eating fish and a man-eating fish.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a long-time occasional copy editor, I haven’t figured out (all) the rules for hyphenation so far and often rely on (often-unreliable) memory and guesswork — [dashes are different!] in other words, a hitormiss approach.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    When I’m going over punctuation with my freshman comp classes, the hyphen rule that I stress is this: If there are two or more words that function together as a single adjective, then they should be hyphenated for clarity.

    If you live in a low-rent district, it isn’t a low district and a rent district.
    A half-baked idea isn’t a half idea and a baked idea.
    Over-the-top acting isn’t a subset of top acting.

    You get the idea.

    I agree that hyphenating nouns (like bumble-bee) seems quaint today. But I do recommend hyphenating adjectives for the reasons given in the previous responses.

  8. says

    Regarding numbers like “twenty five”, I was taught to spell out numbers that were ten and below, and use numerals for all else (25 vs. twenty five or twenty-five).

    But, if you ask a good copy editor, it’s really much more involved than this. There isn’t just the hyphen (often confused with the evil “hyphen-minus”) as we also have the en dash and the em dash. You shouldn’t use a hyphen for a numeric range, like 20 to 25 (20-25). That should be an en dash (slightly wider than the hyphen). Then there’s the em dash which is used typically to replace commas or parentheses.

    But most people just plug along with the hyphen-minus (myself included in casual conversation like this) simply because it’s minimal hassle. In sum, a hyphen-minus isn’t a hyphen which isn’t an en dash which isn’t an em dash.

  9. Holms says

    In sum, a hyphen-minus isn’t a hyphen which isn’t an en dash which isn’t an em dash.

    …But they may as well be.

  10. mnb0 says

    @5 Kimp: OK, but what’s the difference between a man-eating fish and a maneating fish?
    I ask this as a non-native, non native or nonnative English speaker.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    To hyphen or not to hyphen?

    Hyphen is a noun. The title should be: To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

  12. John Morales says

    Reginald, true, but not enough.

    It should be prefaced with Whether, else the answer to that question is necessarily ‘yes’.

  13. Gill Tennant says

    Having learned Welsh as well as English my SO always likes to use five-and-twenty or five and twenty in the Welsh way, as that way there can be no confusion about how many cigars and what they cost. It may sound archaic but we like it! In Welsh 18 can become two-nines as well, just to muddle all you monoglots further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *