They say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So when I recently came upon a text riddled with hyphens popped in willy-nilly where they didn't belong, I felt a bit sad (moderating my emotions in accordance with John Benbow's words of advice: "If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad"). If only the author had known the basics of hyphenation! Sure, we all know the overarching rule: hyphens connect words or syllables that belong together. How hard can that be? Let me count the ways.
This is the easy part. When the last word of a line spills over to the next one, a hyphen between syllables keeps the word together. Nowadays, our word processing programs do this automatically, and we rarely need to make decisions on syllable division. Should you need to make a decision, check your dictionary.
Things get trickier when we start tackling compounds, which fall into three categories:
- open, i.e., no hyphen (high school)
- hyphenated (toll-free)
- closed, i.e., neither hyphen nor space (website)
But wait, you say, that last example didn’t start out as a closed compound. Haven’t I seen Web site, Web-site, and web-site? Of course you have (unless you’ve been living under a rock). A compound often starts out open, goes through a hyphenated stage as it becomes more widespread, and eventually ends up as a closed compound once its usage is ubiquitous. So how do you know what spelling to use? Do what a copyeditor would do: decide which version you’re going to use (here again, your dictionary is your best friend) and then stick to it within your text. It’s all about consistency, which is one of “The Five Cs” of copyediting. (More on this can be found in my book review of The Subversive Copy Editor.)
What about Prefixes and Suffixes?
Is it pre-empt or preempt? Anti-inflammatory or antiinflammatory? Post-graduate or postgraduate? Line-up or lineup? Lay-off or layoff? All of the above. It depends on which dictionary you are using.
Can the Dictionary Answer All My Hyphenation Questions?
Wouldn’t that be nice? But the answer is no. The dictionary can help you when hyphenation is a matter of spelling. But when it’s a matter of function, there are rules.
In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style devotes over eleven pages to its hyphenation guide, nine of them an exhaustive table (section 7:85, the most dog-eared pages in my copy) with dozens of possible scenarios: number + abbreviation; adjective + participle; gerund + noun; phrases, adjectival; noun + noun, single function (first noun modifies second noun).
Luckily, many of these boil down to the same principles. If you can grasp just a few of these rules, you might just avoid the kind of hyphen blight that gave rise to this blog in the first place.
Rule # 1: Hyphenate a compound adjective (even a multi-word one) before a noun. After a noun, leave it open.
Ida put on her well-worn coat. / The coat that Ida put on was well worn.
Ivan was a three-hundred-year-old vampire. / Ivan the vampire was three hundred years old.
Rule # 2: Don’t hyphenate a compound adjective containing an adverb ending in -ly, even before a noun.
It was an eagerly awaited speech. / The speech was eagerly awaited.
Rule # 3: If there’s no danger of ambiguity, don’t hyphenate a compound adjective before a noun; high school dance or air raid drill are perfectly clear without hyphens.
For a bit of practise, take the quiz below.
1. Look at the boldfaced words in this blog. How did I decide whether these should be open, hyphenated, or closed compounds?
2. What changes would you make to this sentence, and why?
Newly-inspired works-in-progress in a wide-range of styles can be difficult-to-impossible to pigeon-hole.
- willy-nilly: I looked it up in the dictionary.
- overarching: I looked it up in the dictionary.
- word processing: Rule # 3
- widespread: I looked it up in the dictionary.
- copyeditor: Both the Merriam-Webster and Canadian Oxford dictionaries give the spelling as copy editor, but Amy Einsohn’s definitive book on copyediting (or copy editing—take your pick) is titled The Copyeditor’s Handbook. So this choice was a matter of personal preference based on an authoritative precedent.
- multi-word: This word isn’t in the dictionary, but Canadian Oxford hyphenates most words beginning with the prefix multi- (Merriam-Webster doesn’t).
Newly inspired (Rule #2) works-in-progress (dictionary search) in a wide range (simple adjective + noun = no need to hyphenate) of styles can be difficult to impossible (Rule #1) to pigeonhole (dictionary search).