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Pity the poor hyphen

by Doug Fisher

No. 75 for April 2008

Did you move your clocks forward for daylight saving time? Or was it daylight-saving time?

Does your town have a health-care system, or health care system; day-care centers, or day care centers?

If you strictly follow AP style, you drop the hyphen. In the past two years, AP joined the "ditch most hyphens" movement. Its stylebook now advises "the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion." Other styles, such as those widely used for academic papers, rarely meet a hyphen they like.

The old joke that, to clear a room of journalists, throw in a stylebook might be amended to toss in a hyphen first.

But publications are all over the board, from the Boston Globe, which practically banishes hyphens, to the Wall Street Journal, which embraces them, including an occasional "world-wide." And one recent letter writer to Copyediting newsletter even took the AP to task for hyphenating words such as co-worker and co-author.

Yet we also still write such abominations as "the then-20-year-old man," "anti-money-laundering (you can launder anti-money?) or "non-life-threatening injuries." (One person once wondered on a copy-editing discussion board: Can you threaten a "non-life"?) Sometimes more words without hyphens is clearer.

But pity the poor hyphen. Perhaps it gets no respect because it's primarily a printer's mark without something similar in speech.

Last year, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary removed more than 16,000 hyphenated words. Many were Briticisms long since collapsed to one word in American English. But the hyphen's days may be numbered. "Our world of fast keying and quick edits onscreen has largely given up searching for the hyphen," the editors said.

Still, a well-placed hyphen aids understanding and helps guide the reader, and it's rare that a page looks as though someone loaded a shotgun with hyphens and fired (seemingly a main concern among the minimalists).

Hyphenation is a recurring topic on editing discussion boards and blogs where there is agreement on a few guidelines – but not necessarily rules:

  • First, make sure it's a compound modifier, not a single word modifying a noun phrase or a noun phrase modifying a noun. Craig Lancaster, on his "Watch Yer Language" blog, offers "consecutive victory" as a noun phrase example. Another is "concrete block." So we don't hyphenate "third consecutive victory" or "concrete block house." (One that sometimes confounds students is not hyphenating things like "red brick house." But we tend to write "the house made of red brick" – more like a noun phrase – not "the red house made of brick.")
  • When the modifier is two nouns, generally no hyphen (health care system, income tax cut, blood alcohol level), but you'll see lots of deviation.
  • Hyphenate adjective-noun modifiers, especially where the adjective is a number (five-mile walk, middle-class lifestyle, 12-step program) and noun-participle combinations (role-playing games, love-starved child).
  • Hyphenate when three or more words, one an adjective, form a modifier (high-school-age children, job-creation-related expenses, 40-foot-long boat). But too often these are awkward mashups to be avoided.
  • Hyphenate to avoid confusion or ambiguity, such as with small-business man. You recover a lost watch, but re-cover a sofa. You recreate at the gym, but you re-create the scene of a crime. And high school-age children could imply something different from what was meant.

Sometimes this also means breaking up words: a used-book store is different from a used bookstore.

  • Don't hyphenate compounds when the adverb ends in "ly" (the early rising worm, his fittingly unkempt suit). But some adjectives also end in "ly" and are hyphenated (a family-owned business).
  • Generally do not hyphenate compounds formed from the superlatives "most" and "least." But "best" and "worst" tend to take a hyphen.

Beyond that, good luck. Some stylebooks, for instance, avoid hyphenating terms like African American, arguing that capitalization makes it clear. Others don't hyphenate compounds denoting color, such as a bluish green shirt. AP uses the hyphen.

A modifier normally hyphenated before a word (a part-time job, a well-liked man) generally keeps the hyphen after a linking verb as a predicate adjective (the job is part-time, he is well-liked). But remember that some of these can be an adverbs, too, as in "she works part time."

But we often see the hyphen dropped in the "well" compounds, against AP's advice, especially if more modifying words follow (the man is well liked around his neighborhood).

The AP also hyphenates when a prefix ends and the root word begins in the same letter (re-election, re-evaluate, non-nuclear), but increasingly that's ignored.

As for high school student, ice cream cone, orange juice salesman and other "common" exceptions, you're on your own. Generally, if it's listed in the dictionary as two words without a hyphen, go for it, but expect some flak.

And don't even start on whether to hyphenate "e-mail"!

Usage note: After recent severe storms, "damages" was used in some stories and on TV to describe the destruction. But "damages" are what you win in a court case. "Damage" – singular – is the term for what is done by a natural disaster or fire, no matter how large the sum or how widespread.


Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at fisherdj@mailbox.sc.edu or 803-777-3315.

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