A Short Dash To Oblivion: 16 Tips On Hyphens and Dashes

In a previous blog we rediscovered the joys of the semicolon; in this one we look at hyphens and dashes.

Not with the same enthusiasm, admittedly. We love the semicolon, but we’re more suspicious of the hyphen and wouldn’t use it if we didn’t have to.

As writers, editors and proofreaders the hyphen causes us angst. The rules are, at best, complicated. And hang the rules, usage is complicated too.

There is a generational split: older users prefer it, younger users demur.

Ideally we’d avoid using it. But we also want to avoid punctuational ‘dad dancing’, getting down with the kids and embarrassing ourselves.

So, deferring to our actual generation, we point out where you really can’t get away without using a hyphen.

And throw in some dashes at the end.

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Hart

As usual let’s start with Hart: Hart’s Rules on the hyphen are unusually apologetic and complex.

Apologetic in admitting that hyphenation depends on a lot of variables. These include the role of the word(s) in the sentence and personal preference. Which, as Hart acknowledges, makes it hard for a style guide or dictionary to be definitive.

Complex in that the Hart editor then spends many pages laying down some of the rules and nuances, as best she can. Which, as always, is pretty well.

One clue lies in Hart’s treatment of noun compounds:

A compound term may be open (spaced as separate words), hyphenated, or closed (written as one word). However there is an increasing tendency to avoid hyphenation for noun compounds.

Quite so. And other compound forms to boot, we would say. Still, let’s see if we can put some flesh on the bones, while keeping it as simple as we can.

We go down the Always/Never/Sometimes route, even though this misses some of the nuances.

Always

There are some clearly-defined situations where we always use one, or should.

Tip 1
Always use a hyphen…
Where it would be downright ambiguous or misleading not to:
Pre-date (preceding in time) vs predate (a hawk and a sparrow)
Re-cover (a chair) vs recover (from illness)

Tip 2
Always use a hyphen…
In a compound that has an adjective and a verb participle, before OR after a noun:
Foul-smelling waste; her husband was good-looking

Tip 3
Always use a hyphen…
In a compound that has an adjective but no verb participle, BEFORE a noun not after:
Twentieth-century boy; vs a boy from the twentieth century

Tip 4
Always use a hyphen…
In a compound with an adverb that is not -ly, BEFORE a noun not after:
A much-admired painting; vs a painting that was much admired

Tip 5
Always use a hyphen…
In a prefix or suffix where it would look plain ugly or wrong not to; for example due to too many of the same letters in a row; or where the suffix is a complete word adjoined to a noun, adjective or adverb:
Pre-empt
Ball-less
Footballer-style haircut

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Never

I won’t bother repeating the obvious ones from above: the corollaries of Tips 1, 3 and 4. But here are some other Nevers.

Tip 6
Never use a hyphen…
In an adjectival compound that includes an -ly adverb:
Cleverly written

Tip 7
Never use a hyphen…
In compound terms relating to science:
Carbon dioxide
Radiotherapy

Tip 8
Never use a hyphen…
In a phrasal verb that is definitely being used as a verb:
He wanted to build up his network

Tip 9
Never use a hyphen…
With the suffixes wide, scape and proof:
Countrywide, cityscape, foolproof

Sometimes

These are more controversial. The decisions are partly to do with usage but also with fashion and preference.

If any readers think there is something here that should be Always or Never, please let me know. But do remember we’re trying to make a point, that hyphenation isn’t always clear cut, even when it’s perceived to be.

Tip 10
Think about using a hyphen or not…
In foreign phrases: yes, if the word has a hyphen in its original language: no, if not. This isn’t always easy to ascertain. I prefer to allow sense and instinct to dictate.
Sang-froid, sangfroid or sang froid
All are good. Let judgment be your guide. Just be consistent.

Tip 11
Think about using a hyphen or not…
In a phrasal verb used as a noun:
The build-up of the network or
The build up of the network
These constructions are so close to being compound nouns that I think anything goes. But please note: not everyone agrees.

Tip 12
Think about using a hyphen or not…
In spelled-out numbers:
Sixty-four or sixty four
Personally I don’t see why the hyphen is necessary in this one. I think again it’s more a matter of preference and taste, whatever the rules say. It doesn’t look bad without, and is not ambiguous. Why insist?

Tip 13
Think about using a hyphen or not…
In most other uses of compounds, prefixes and suffixes; just bear in mind Tips 1 to 5 and use one if it would be misleading or intolerably ugly not to. Aside from those instances I think anything should go here. A hyphen should be both allowed and not required, as long as consistency reigns in separate uses of the same word:
Anti-establishment or anti establishment
Copy-editor, copy editor or copyeditor
E-mail or email

For completeness we haven’t covered in this section a few more obscure things like compass points, pauses, omissions, double barrelled surnames and others. Check out Hart or the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors for authoritative guidance.

We’ll finish this section with some brief tips on dashes, the En dash (width of a letter n) – also called the En rule – and its American cousin the Em dash or Em rule (width of a letter m).

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En dash

Tip 14
The rules are surprisingly complex but here is a simple interpretation. Use an En dash not a hyphen when compounding two things that have approximately equal weight and both could stand alone in their own right. This includes number ranges.
1939–1945 war
Man Utd–Chelsea match
Kent–Surrey border
And – of course – as a parenthetical divider of a phrase, clause or sentence, instead of brackets or commas.

Em dash

Tip 15
Again we’ll keep it simple—an Em dash is used in American usage (and by some British publishers) as an alternative to the parenthetical En dash. And has no preceding or following spaces—it closes up to both preceding and succeeding word.

Note this rule on usage applies only to the parenthetical En dash, used either singly or in a pair. The ‘separating’ En dash – separating a number range, for instance, or two adjoining but standalone elements in a compound, both as shown in Tip 14 – remains an En dash in both British and American usage.

Tip 16
Finally the most important tip of all – and in a sense the only relevant one if you follow the logic of this blog – be consistent! Consistency is the only rule that really matters here, and covers a multitude of usages.

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Prism-Clarity?

You might notice this website goes by the name Prism-Clarity (with hyphen). Why should this be?

Hart states that in general capitalised compounds should not be hyphenated. But this is not definitive: Hart acknowledges that you can hyphenate. And if you do – and the first element of the compound is capitalised – then in modern usage the second element is often capitalised too. Hence Prism-Clarity with a hyphen.

This is a nice illustration of our motto, adapted from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: do anything you like, as long as it’s not outright barbarous.

We chose a hyphen between Prism and Clarity simply because that web domain name was available. Everything else, including the company name, followed suit. It was a pragmatic judgment, which trumped anything linguistic rules or usage guides might offer.

Language is a living thing and we should allow it to live, breathe and evolve. If it is evolving away from hyphenation and other traditional forms we should accept that and temper our judgment; except where it really makes a difference to the meaning to have one or not (as in Tip 1 earlier). Aside from that, anything goes.

For our part, we’re looking to slowly stop using it, whatever the more traditional view. Except in some of the obvious usages set out in Tips 1 to 5. I respect those who continue to use it as a matter of stylistic correctness and choice, but my own preference is to leave it out where possible. Prism-Clarity being the paradoxical exception.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further help or information, including advice on where to get the best advice.