If you don’t see the need for hyphens, ask yourself when did you last see a salad dressing, a moth eaten or hear a name calling? I’m guessing never. That’s because just to make sure everyone knows what we mean with phrases like this, we tend to hyphenate these ‘compound words’. Compound words are formed when two or more words are put together to form a new word with a new meaning.
Here are a couple of examples
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 – say a Mini – means something completely different to a little-used car – in other words, one with notably low mileage.
What are hyphens for?
Hyphens are intended to join – temporarily or permanently – two or more associated words. Sometimes this is done to create a useful compound word to describe something for which no word exists such as double-cross or knock-kneed. Other times it acts as a guide to pronunciation such as co-respondent. The hyphen is interesting in that over time, having done its job of cobbling together two associated words, it’s often dropped altogether as the two words become one. I’m thinking here of tax-payer, motor-car and man-power from the 1950s. And going further back to the early 20th century, tomorrow was to-morrow and yesterday was yester-day.
How should hyphens be used?
Now a study of more than 10,000 words has found that four basic rules will work 75% of the time:
- If a word is a verb, adjective or adverb, it probably needs a hyphen. Chain-smoke and broken-down are good examples.
- For nouns with two syllables such as break-up and set-to the rule is clear: use a hyphen if the second word has two letters.
- But if the second part has more than two letters it should be spelt as one word, like coastline or bedroom.
- And if the noun has three or more syllables it should be treated as two separate words like, for example, washing machine or airing cupboard.
But beware! While as a general trend, hyphenated words eventually become one over time, there are certain words that should never be joined because of a phenomenon known as ‘letter collision’ which looks visually disconcerting. Just think of shell-like (not shellike), semi-illiterate (not semiilliterate) and de-ice (not deice), all of which are causing my spellcheck to go crazy with red wavy lines.
Still het up over hyphens? Best consult a professional copywriter!
 Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer, Linguistics Professor at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich – 12.7.18