Grammar: The Hyphen [ - ]

 

Page contents:

linking compound adjectives
linking compound nouns
linking prefixes to words
linking repetitive, or almost repetitive, words
linking compound numbers
linking people's names

 

Linking Compound Adjectives

At 5' 7", the short-story writer O. Henry might also be described as a short story writer, but the two descriptions are clearly different. In this capacity,
the hyphen 
shows that the adjectives express one idea (a light-brown overcoat) rather than two (a light brown overcoat). But hyphenation usually 
occurs only
 in the attributive (when the compound precedes the noun) –

      She is a well-known actor
      They are law-abiding citizens
      Jane is a soft-hearted woman
      The dress has an eye-catching pattern

Compound adjectives are not usually hyphenated in the predicative (when they come after the noun or pronoun) –

      She’s an actor well known
      Most people are law abiding
      Jane is soft hearted
      The pattern on the dress is eye catching

Exceptions are compounds beginning with ill, mid and self, which are hyphenated in all circumstances –

      an ill-conceived idea (attributive)
      an idea ill-conceived (predicative)

      a mid-life crisis (attributive)
      a crisis of mid-life (predicative)

      a self-evident truth (attributive)
      a truth that is self-evident (predicative)

In a series of related compound adjectives (e.g. first-classsecond-classthird-class), we generally drop the second component in all but the last
instance. 
But although the rule is rarely followed, the hyphen (called a trailing hyphen) should appear in all instances –

      British universities award first-, second- and third-class degrees on their
      three- and four-year courses.

Hyphens are not used with compounds whose first components are ly-ending adverbs –

      an easily understood lesson
      readily available ingredients
      a commonly cited example

 

Linking Compound Nouns

Most compound nouns are either open (bus stop, clothes line, post office, swimming pool) or closed (boyfriend, mastermindtoothpaste, wallpaper),
but a few are hyphenated, often to avoid unsightly spelling –

      get-together
      mother-in-law
      single-mindedness
      train-spotting

Compounds with the suffix room are usually closed when the first component is monosyllabic –

      bathroom
      bedroom
      storeroom
     
(but box room)

and open when the first component has more than one syllable –

      breakfast room
      dining room
      living room
      reception room
      utility room

The latter are hyphenated only as noun-adjective compounds (nouns describing other nouns) –

      We need new dining-room furniture.

(See also compound nouns.)

 

Linking Prefixes to Words

There is unfortunately no consistency in this use of the hyphen –

      anti-aircraft              anticlimax
      counter-attack          counterproductive
      non-addictive            nonconformist
      post-Renaissance      postgraduate
      pre-war                     precondition
      semi-conscious          semicircle
      sub-aquatic               subconscious

Only a dictionary or familiarity with the words can decide. It is, however, crucial to use a hyphen after the prefix re where not to do so would create
another word with a different meaning –

      re-form (shape anew); reform (improve)
      re-bound (bound anew); rebound (bounce, reverberate)
      re-cover (cover anew); recover (recuperate)

(For a more extensive list, see re, re-.)

Hyphens are also normally used when the prefix is a single (often capitalised) letter –

      e-mail (but now usually email)
      S-bend
      T-Junction
      T-shirt
      U-turn
      X-ray

 

Linking Repetitive, or Almost Repetitive, Words

These are generally confined to informal English –

      never-never
      hush-hush
      tick-tock
      mumbo-jumbo
      jiggery-pokery

 

Linking Compound Numbers

The hyphen is also used to link the following kinds of number.

Cardinal compounds between and including twenty-one and ninety-nine

      thirty-three
      sixty-seven
      eighty-five

but not above this –

      two hundred
      three hundred thousand

Ordinal compounds between twenty-first and ninety-ninth  

      twenty-ninth
      forty-second
      seventy-fourth

but, again, not above this –

      one hundredth
      three thousandth

Fractions –

      two-thirds
      three-quarters
      seven-eighths

The dash, however, not the hyphen, is used to span calendar years and page ranges –

      Beethoven (1770–1827)
      pp. 127
34

(See also numbers.)


Linking People's Names

      Price-Jones
      Barnes-Wallace
      Douglas-Home
      Anne-Marie
      Jean-Paul