Whether or not English is your native tongue, users can agree on one thing: It can be one tricky language. In addition to pronunciation irregularities such as rough, bough, through and dough or homophones such as too, two and to, English brims with definition and application nuances that often stump, if not elude, the otherwise proficient writer or speaker. It's a language of hundreds of rules and thousands of exceptions to those rules.
Some may argue this makes the language colorful; others may say it drives them to drink.
Exasperating as it can be, at least it's not boring; and sometimes, elements of the language will cause you to pause and reflect, if only to be certain that you're using them correctly.
Take the hyphen — a little line that often makes a big difference but one that too often is misused, inserted where it doesn't belong or missing altogether where it does. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation; it deserves a lot more attention and respect than it gets.
The hyphen plays several roles. For one, it's used to break up syllables in dictionary entries. For another, when the hyphen appears at the end of a syllable at the end of a line in print, it's telling you that the remainder of the word has carried over to the following line; it's signaling a continuance.
Grammatically, the hyphen's main purpose is to ensure clarity, and here's where things can get fuzzy. The hyphen commonly is used in a compound adjective — a phrase comprising two or more words that express a single concept. The compound adjective usually describes the noun that immediately follows it. One clue that a hyphen is needed to connect these words is when the lack of the hyphen causes the message to be unclear.
Here are some examples:
- fastest-growing population
- four-hour programs
- little-known company
- third-world country
Without the hyphens, these phrases could be misconstrued. They'll stop you in your tracks as you read them, because without the hyphens, you cannot be sure what's being conveyed.
The "fastest growing population" could be interpreted as a growing population that runs more quickly than any other growing population. "Four hour programs" could describe four programs that are each an hour long. A "little known company" could be a small business that is widely known. A "third world country" could be number three in a list of global nations.
The hyphen sets you straight.
Then there's when not to use the hyphen.
Words such as firsthand, necktie and firewall are not hyphenated, and there are a slew of others that, even though you might think they should be hyphenated or have always hyphenated them or have always seen them hyphenated, aren't. Adding to the confusion are words that, depending on their usage in a sentence, may or may not sport a hyphen. Lowdown, for instance, when used as a noun is a single word; however, used descriptively, as in that low-down, dirty, rotten scoundrel, it needs the hyphen.
Knowing with confidence when or when not to use the hyphen requires the assistance of a good dictionary, because as far as I can figure out, there's no single rule that applies across the board . Consider the word long. Just look at some of the many entries listed in Webster's II New College Dictionary for nouns and adjectives that have long as a prefix:
- longboat: noun, no hyphen
- long suit: noun, space/no hyphen
- long-distance: adjective, hyphen
- longhair: noun, no hyphen
- longhorn: noun, no hyphen
- long-horned: adjective, hyphen
- longsighted: adjective, no hyphen
- long-winded: adjective, hyphen
As for adverbs, most English usage manuals advise avoiding hyphens after "-ly" adverbs, such as "fairly close race" and "equally effective medication." As the Associated Press Stylebook explains, readers expect such adverbs to modify the word that follows.
Hyphens also play a role in some company names. Walmart, for one, features a timeline on its website that illustrates how the hyphen fell into and out of fashion in its logo. Up to fairly recently, a five-point star served as a stand-in for our trusty sliver of a punctuation mark. Today, both the hyphen and star are history.
Hewlett-Packard uses the hyphen and then drops it in the company’s abbreviated reference of HP. No hyphen there. As for ExxonMobil, visit its website and find the company name spelled not only as one word, with a capital “M,” but as two separate words: Exxon Mobil. Maybe the oil giant could use a hyphen in its name to keep things consistent.
When in doubt about hyphenation, don't guess. Instead, check your stylebook for guidance. Better yet, keep a good dictionary on hand—and use it. Or, even better, consult your local bartender.