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.