Tuesday, April 9, 2013

GrammatiCats: Hyphens

Hello again, literary enthusiasts!

A few days ago, we looked at em dashes (—) and en dashes (–).  Today, I'd like to touch on the tiniest and most ubiquitous member of the dash family: the humble hyphen (-). 

Actually, this will be less touching and more full-fledged grammatical groping, but don't hypherventilate - it'll be a good time.

Pinkie Rating: 3

You know how when you get into the checkout line at the grocery store, they have those divider bars that keep your massive crates of beer, cigarettes, and Fancy Feast separate from the wholesome provisions of the customer behind you?

A lot of times, hyphens do exactly that: they mark divisions between items on the conveyor belt of your prose. 

We use hyphens to separate:

1.  Letters and numbers

We use these not only when we're writing things like phone numbers and social security numbers, but also when we want the reader to know that the word should be spelled instead of spoken.  For example:

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E  (If you hear a tune when you read that, pour a libation for Annette Funicello)

2.  Prefixes and Suffixes

We have more than a few words for which the hyphen makes all the difference:
  • historical recreation: riding bicycles with ridiculously huge front wheels, singing around an upright piano, dying in childbirth
  • historical re-creation: spending three days and $2,000 playing out the Battle of Gettysburg in period-accurate costume
Even when there's no secondary definition, however, hyphens can make a big difference for ease of reading.

When you write them out, it's considerably harder to parse words like 'expresident' and 'allterrain' without that all-important (allimportant?) hyphen in there.  In cases like these, the hyphen is a useful way to separate the beginning or ending of the word from its principal part, so we can instantly, visually grasp its meaning and pronunciation. 

Speaking of pronunciation:

3.  Sounds and syllables

Sometimes we have a single word, but need to show the division of sounds so that it's pronounced correctly.

Other times, a perfectly ordinary word hits the end of a line, and we have to break part of it onto the next line.  (When this happens, strive in all things to break it between syllables: upper-
-class is much preferable to uppercl-

Still other times, we use the break-it-between-syllables trick to show readers how to pronounce a particularly complex word:

Hey kids!  Can you say "non-dis-charge-a-ble debt?"

But that is not all, said the Cat in the Hat - no, that is not all!

Go back to our original analogy.  You know where else you have to put your stuff through a conveyor belt?  Hint: it comes with a free feel-up.

You got it: it's all the fun you can have with airport security!

Anyway, so while you're getting intimate with a pair of blue latex gloves, your stuff has to go through the X-ray machine.  You can throw your backpack or briefcase straight onto the conveyor belt, but for the little things (wallet, keys, cell phone, dignity), they give you a bin.  Hyphens can serve a similar function: they group together words that we don't want separated

In this example, 'means-tested' is technically two words, but they have to go together in exactly that order so that they can do their job, which is to describe 'benefits'.   Contrast 'the little red hen': you could drop 'little' or 'red', or even change their order, and it wouldn't make a difference.

Speaking of hens, let's get even more pastoral.  Let's talk about sheep.

Twelve-year-old white sheep = a white sheep that's twelve years old
Twelve year-old white sheep = a dozen adorable white lambs!

You notice how the meaning changes according to how many words we put in the hyphen bin?  Notice too how the un-binned words can change their order:

Twelve year-old white sheep
Twelve white year-old sheep

We can have multiple bins:  a thirty-year, fixed-rate mortgage
We can have multiple words in a bin: the state-of-the-art facility
And we can even have two bins that share a single word between them:

Do you see how that first hyphen has its left side glued to 'rug', and its right side just hanging out there in space?  It's basically saying "keep going - we're getting to the good stuff!" because both 'rug' and 'burger' go with 'guarding'.  This is the only time when a hyphen should be dangling out in space by itself.  The rest of the time, it should be sandwiched cozily between words/letters/numbers, with no spaces intervening.

So with all these terrific uses for a hyphen, when should you not hyphenate?

Well, let's pull out another example of a well-used hyphen. (<-- Hey, I had one just there, too!)

Doogle always was a spatially-challenged cat.

Now, let's say we change it around a little:

Even by cat standards, Doogle was spatially challenged.

Why do we not need a hyphen here?

In the first example, the hyphenation is just another one of those "keep going - we're getting to the good stuff!" messages that tells you not to stop reading yet, because the most important word (the noun, 'cat') is still to come.  In the second example, the noun ('Doogle') came first, so there's no risk of us getting confused about who or what is spatially challenged.  So in essence,

1.  You don't need to hyphenate when your multi-word adjective comes AFTER its noun (As above.)


2.  You don't need to hyphenate when the first part of your multi-word adjective is an adverb ending in '-ly'

For example: poorly worded legal documents.  'Poorly' has to describe 'worded', which has to describe 'legal documents', so what you have isn't really a 'bin' of words - it's more like each one is tied to the next.

3.  You don't need to hyphenate when your adjectives are interchangeable

As above:  little red hen = red little hen, so no need for a hyphen

And most importantly,

4.  You generally don't need a hyphen if the word would make good sense without it.

For example, "pre-existing" and "pre-1990" would look kinda strange without the hyphen, but "preschool" and "prerequisite" don't.

In fact, we the English-speaking world are trending ever further away from hyphens.  Are you old enough to remember when words like 'online' and 'login' were hyphenated?  Yeah, how silly does that look now?

(If you are a fan of The Onion, you may have noticed how T. Herman Zweibel uses loads of hyphens for exactly this reason:  it's a great way to get a comically old-fashioned effect in writing.  --Click carefully, by the way, cuz that link's got some splendid cuss words in it.)

So that's the future, folks:  Marty McFly zooming around on his hoverboard as George Jetson flies to work and Fry tries to explain to Bender what hyphens used to do.  Strap on your jet-pack (or is that 'jetpack'?) and get ready for the world of tomorrow!

Further Reading:

Purdue OWL: Hyphen Use - a quick, clean list of when to hyphenate and when not to
Thousands of Hyphens Perish as English Marches On - a fantastically-titled article!

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Crookshanks, courtesy of mutant blogging mastermind Jak Cryton (read more about Crooks here!)
2. Henry Higgins, courtesy of Stacey G.
3. Bandi, courtesy of Frank the Magnificent
4. Silkie, likewise!
5. George and Gracie, courtesy of Mary Z.
6. Apollo, courtesy of Honoré Hillman (and if you're a fantasy fan, you need to go check out The Bard and the Mage!)

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. I love hyphens! I think they are under-used by the general public (did I get that one right?) or often used incorrectly. I might use too many, but what-ev-er. Thanks for another great post! I'm going to click the fun links now.

    1. See, that is exactly what Rebeccah said just below: far better to get an extra one in there (Bonus hyphen, people - you're welcome!) than have people scratching their heads when you leave it out. Let's hear it for hypheractivity!

  2. I'm always a little unsure about hyphen use sometimes. There are a few words that when I'm writing, Word tells me are spelled incorrect and give me a few correct options and hyphens is always one.

    1. That's the hardest part, isn't it? I have the same issue. Like, you'll be blowing right along and then it's like... wait, do I use the hyphen or...

      Word is always behind the times, though. Sometimes when I can't make up my mind, I Google both versions (for example, 'makeup' and then 'make-up') to see whether one has wildly more results than the other.

      (Turns out that 'makeup' is what goes on your face, and 'make-up' describes the artist who puts it there. Who knew!)

  3. dun Dun DUN! The dreaded Hyphen! I am glad this topic was finally tackled :) Now I can sleep easy tonight. I well never use the Hangin' Hyphen, if I can help it. I try to avoid using hyphens, in general.

    Don't believe Jenny, hyphens are the devil. I think she may be an alien spy.

    It is awesome you incorporated "Belly" into Crook's Meme lol Hilarious!

    Hmm... I am not sure what "I" may be... Italics? Indents? Insecurities? >.<

    1. Haha, so far "I" is looking like "Inexcusably late," but we'll see what happens!

      Also, Crooks' belly was totally a no-brainer. That's like, his single most glorious defining feature. Like Dolly Parton's boobs - you can love her for a thousand reasons, but those two are in there somewhere.

      (Also, you might be right about Jenny, but don't piss her off - she's one of those Colorado people, and you know how much outdoor exercise they get. She could probably nail either one of us to the wall and not even have to break out her laser eyebeams.)

      ((Also, when I open a bar, I'm going to name it the Hangin' Hyphen. Get in on the ground floor and I'll pay you a quarter every time someone walks through the batwing doors.))

    2. I almost didn't get "J" up in time, so I know what you mean. My posts are getting later and later. Used to have 'em ready for 2am day of not it is like 11pm lol

      Correct about Crooks. It is his defining feature, but I am trying to make him diet. He isn't much for it.

      I don't trust Coloradians, but I'd rather live so I'll take the advice to heart. I would check out a bar called the Hangin' Hyphen :)

  4. I remember reading a history book at school, and a word popped up that I'd never seen before - 'prewar'. I was reading it as 'prew-ar' (proo-ar) and couldn't work out what it meant. 'Prewar' wasn't in the dictionary, and my dad (who is a walking dictionary) didn't have a clue what it meant, even in context. It took us ages to work out it was supposed to say 'pre-war'. Stupid whoever edited that book.

    1. Yeah, I pulled together a couple of sources for this one, including CMS, but I gotta say that I agree with you: nobody's day was ever ruined by hyphens, but plenty of consternation has been caused by the lack of them. "When in doubt, leave it out" has been a little overzealously applied, IMO.

      Also: "prewar" sounds like some kind of old serving-ware - like pewter, but even more fusty. We should make that a thing, so everyone has to hyphenate pre-war to avoid confusion.

  5. WOW, great explanations. You made it all sound so simple in the world of English where more exceptions than rules exist.

    1. Thank you - that is one of the greatest grammar compliments I've ever gotten! (Because that is exactly the trouble: this fantastic language of ours has eight thousand rules with eight thousand exceptions each, and the sheer size of the rulebook is so depressing that nobody even wants to crack it open!)