The red Mini pictured above is a little, used car – not necessarily a little-used car.
How well do you use hyphens? They look like a shorter, stubbier relative of the dash but perform a very different function.
In a nutshell, hyphens are commonly used to glue words together when no single word exists. Such as ‘on-site’, ‘stress-free’ or ‘mother-in-law’.
You can also use hyphens to form compound words with different meanings. For example, here are two very similar newspaper headlines with just one small but significant 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. See what a difference a hyphen makes?
A handy punctuation mark
Here’s another, more everyday example. 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.
The grammar software company Grammarly explains that, as a general rule, you need a hyphen only if the two words are functioning together as an adjective before the noun they’re describing.
- We recommend you don’t take down any load-bearing walls when renovating.
- This rock-hard cake is absolutely impossible to eat.
- We’re looking for a dog-friendly hotel.
Conversely, if the noun comes first, leave the hyphen out. For instance:
- This wall is load bearing.
- I’m finding it impossible to eat this cake because it’s rock hard.
- Is this hotel dog friendly?
Hyphens can disappear!
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’ve 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 and, ultimately, single words is not consistent. This means there is no hard and fast rule governing when words should remain separate, be hyphenated or merged into a single word. This can lead to confusion.
One consistent practice is to use hyphens to avoid visually disconcerting cases of ‘letter collision’. So, we write ‘shell-like’ (rather than ‘shelllike’), semi-illiterate (instead of the confusing ‘semiilliterate’) and ‘de-ice’ (not ‘deice’).
If you’d like help to get your messages across without grammar gaffes, just get in touch!
Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay