A shock report in The Times warns that hyphens have become the most overused form of punctuation. English language researchers at English Today, a quarterly journal from Cambridge University Press, are causing quite a stir in the normally staid world of academia by naming and shaming the worst hyphen offenders.
And we’re not talking amateurs here but professional writers including Professor Richard Dawkins, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, and journalists for the i newspaper, the Radio Times and The Spectator.
Private Eye is highlighted as a repeat offender (I’ll stick my neck out here and say I suspect they won’t be overly bothered). The researchers note, “Among the pages of that ‘esteemed organ’ random misuse of the hyphen can also be found. . .you can read of a ‘hugely-publicised car-crash and a ‘newly-installed chairman’.”
How to use hyphens
Hyphens are commonly used to join two or more associated words when no single word exists, for instance ‘on-site’, ‘stress-free’ or ‘mother-in-law’.
They can also be used to form compound words with very different meanings. For example, here are two very similar newspaper headlines with just one difference:
- Man eating tiger seen near motorway
- Man-eating tiger seen near motorway
The first headline suggests that a hungry motorist has decided to barbecue some choice jungle meat near a motorway. But the second warns you of a potential hazard if you decide to stroll along the hard shoulder. What a difference a hyphen makes!
In the same vein, a little used car – like my cute red Mini – means something completely different to a little-used car – in other words, one with notably low mileage.
A note of caution
The interesting thing about hyphens is that unlike a diamond, a hyphen is not forever. Having done their job they are often discarded over time and – ta da! – a new word is born some years later, unencumbered by punctuation. We have seen this happen with words such as ‘book-seller’, ‘life-like’ and ‘pre-historic’, which are rarely, if ever, hyphenated today.
Unfortunately, the evolutionary process from two or more unconnected words to hyphenated words to single words is not consistent and there is no hard and fast rule governing when words should remain separate, be hyphenated or merged into a single word, which can lead to confusion.
One consistent practice though is the use of hyphens to avoid visually disconcerting cases of ‘letter collision’ so that we have ‘shell-like’ (rather than ‘shelllike’), semi-illiterate (instead of the confusing ‘semiilliterate’) and ‘de-ice’ (not ‘deice’).
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