Simply dashing part three: the hyphen

Welcome back for our final installment from the horizontal language department. Previously we discussed the em dash and the en dash. Today we will learn about the shortest in the dash-like family, the hyphen.

Hyphen basics
Hyphens link:

  • a prefix or a suffix to a word; and
  • two or more words together

Hyphens linking prefixes and suffixes
One of the most difficult questions when it comes to this topic is whether to hyphenate. In general, there is a movement away from hyphenation when it comes to prefixes and suffixes.

Think about the words bicycle and misinformed. If we added a hyphen before these prefixes, the words would look like this: bi-cycle and mis-informed. However, due to the trend away from hyphenation, these words now look wrong to us with their hyphens.

Still, there are times when we include hyphens with prefixes and suffixes. Today, one of the hyphen’s main purposes is to help with ease of reading. A general rule is to hyphenate when a lack of a hyphen would cause confusion or when it is not a familiar word without the hyphen.

For example, think of the word recreation. Recreation, without the hyphen, means exercise or play. Re-creation, with the hyphen, means to create something again. The words have two different meanings depending on whether you use a hyphen. The same idea goes with recover and re-cover.

For the second part of the rule, let’s consider my obsession with collecting R2D2 figurines. (Stay with me.) If someone broke into my apartment and stole all of my R2D2 toys, I would be R2D2-less. However, I would not be R2D2less because, well, that word just looks strange. Think also about someone who just quit smoking. They would now be tobacco-free. They wouldn’t be tobaccofree. In both these instances, you need the hyphen because these words are not familiar without them.

Unfortunately, there are few definitive rules when it comes to using hyphens with prefixes and suffixes. However, The Chicago Manual of Style’s chapter seven has a handy list of hyphenated and unhyphenated words.

Hyphens linking two or more words together
This use of hyphens thankfully has more definitive rules.

1. Compound modifiers with nouns: Compound modifiers are two or more words that work together to describe a noun. Think about half-full jar (Half-full is the compound modifier.) and closed-lipped smile (Closed-lipped is the compound modifier.). When these come before a noun, they are usually always hyphenated.

Here are more examples:

red-and-white dress
seven-year-old boy
three-time champion
well-read man
thirty-year reign
second-best option

However, if your modifier includes a word ending in –ly, it does not take a hyphen, such as in these examples:

highly paid executive
amazingly hilarious movie
humorously dull person
finally pursued goal

2. Omission of part of a hyphenated expression: This also has to do with compound modifiers. Let’s start with an example. Say you have a five-year plan (Note the hyphen.) and a ten-year plan. (Five-year and ten-year are the compound modifiers.) If you wanted to write about both of these plans at the same time, you could write my five-year plan and my ten-year plan. Or you could combine the two to write my five- and ten-year plans. Here, we took out the first year, but we still need the hyphen.

Here are more examples:

twenty- and thirty-year payment plans
first- and second-year students
Minneapolis- or St. Paul-bound passengers
fur- and gut-covered man

Final note
As you can tell, the rules (and sometimes the lack thereof) for hyphens are complicated. I have touched on basics here, but there are many exceptions depending on the word. I recommend further investigation if you are researching a specific case. Like I mentioned before, chapter seven of The Chicago Manual of Style breaks down case-by-case scenarios in better detail. You can also try that old trick of checking the dictionary.


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