When do I use a hyphen?

The hyphen, this small punctuation mark, can cause writers a lot of trouble.

As with the previous post on errors in capitalization, the error of missing or unnecessary hyphen did not appear on the original Twenty Most Common Errors list, though unlike capitalization errors at #8, errors with hyphens occurs at the bottom of the Top Twenty list at #19. Still, in a similar study on the school level (as opposed to national one), hyphen errors occurred on more than a third of student papers and ranked at #12 (shawnee.edu).

The Everyday Writer introduces its section on hyphens with the following passage:

“Hyphens show up every time you make a left-hand turn, wear a Chicago Bulls T-shirt, buy gasoline at a self-service station, visit a writing center for one-on-one tutoring, worry about a long-term relationship, listen to hip-hop, or eat Tex-Mex food” (236).

People sometimes struggle with the use of a hyphen with compound adjectives.

Adjectives that are compound and come before the noun it modifies contain a hyphen:

a two-inch board

a well-designed running shoe

an out-of-work carpenter

When the compound adjectives come after a noun, do not hyphenate them:

The board is two inches wide.

The running show is well designed.

The carpenter is out of work.

If the modifier is an –ly adverb and comes before the noun, a hyphen in not used:

a nicely designed running shoe

a clearly phrased message

(examples adapted from Kolln Rhetorical Grammar 289-290)

Nouns and verbs can also be compound, and some require a hyphen. If you are uncertain, it’s best to check with a dictionary. Here are examples from The Everyday Writer (237):

one word:rowboat, textbook, flowerpot, homepage
separate words:high school, parking meter, shut up
words with hyphens:city-state, sister-in-law, cross-fertilize

Hyphens are also used with fractions (one-fifth) and compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. Although most words with prefixes or suffixes are written without hyphens, there are exceptions as shown in The Everyday Writer (238):

before capitalized words:pro-Democratic, non-Catholic
with figures:pre-1960, post-1945
with all-, ex-, and self-:all-state, ex-partner, self-possessed
with –elect:major-elect
for clarity:re-cover, anti-inflation, troll-like

Another issue is how and when to use a hyphen to divide words at the end of a line.

End-of-the-line hyphenating has become a concern of writers and copy-editors and anyone preparing “copy” for publication, whether in formal printing or in printing papers for professors or writing peers.

This issue arises mostly in fully justified text, a format that distributes your text evenly between the margins. It gives the document a clean look and is used in most book publishing. Word breaks are used at the end of lines to keep the crisp edge, and a hyphen is used to show the division. Many publications and associations have their own guidelines for how and when to break words.

Most papers, however, are written with left-aligned text, also called “ragged right” since it results in uneven line lengths. When line lengths are extremely uneven, then word breaks are used for aesthetic purposes.

If you do not have a required style guide, Copyediting.com provides some recommended guidelines for using hyphens with end-of-line word breaks:

Do not break one-syllable words.

Do not break initialisms or all-caps acronyms. (See previous post on capitalization & acronyms.)

Do not introduce a new hyphen into a word that already has a hyphen in it; for example, with words such as hurdy-gurdy or eye-popping.

DO break a compound word between its constituent parts; for example, butter-/fly is preferable to but-/terfly.

Again, consulting a dictionary is a good practice to follow. The dictionary’s head words show by the use of dots the appropriate places to break the word when it occurs at the end of a line.

Finally, some URLs contain hyphens. With increasingly more information and resources available on the Internet, the use of URLs to document or direct interested readers to the original source is increasing. Some URLs are so long that the text jumps or wraps to the next line, creating either an extremely jagged line or the problem of finding a natural break.

Since it’s common for URLs to contain hyphens, don’t insert an extra hyphen at the line break. Not only can this confuse readers, but it can invalidate the link, particularly if the document is hyperlinked. (Even using the enter key to force a line break can interfere with the URL code, so you can use the “no width optional break” for an actual working link, especially useful when papers are submitted or published online.)

If you’re writing an academic piece, follow the guidelines in your discipline: two examples are the APA style for a reference list or the MLA style for a works cited list.

Hyphens may be small punctuation marks, but their use is specific and when they are not used correctly, the error can call attention to your writing in negative ways. The guidelines presented here can help you deal with issues that arise with the use of hyphens.

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