When are hyphens helpful

A hyphen (-) is a short dash. The Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition, 2002) notes there are few firm rules for the use of hyphens and no simple rights and wrongs. The main advice is to choose one dictionary, such as the Macquarie dictionary, and follow its recommendations. As always in editing, be consistent throughout the document.

Here are some helpful uses of hyphens:

  • Clarify meaning such as re-sign (sign again) versus resign (leave a job).
  • Clarify meaning in compound words such as owner-builder and disease-free.
  • Prevent misreading of words starting with prefixes such as anti, ex and re followed by vowels such as re-enter.
  • Use hyphens in compound adjectives with numbers such as three-part series.
  • Avoid hanging or floating hyphens such as pre- and post-1788.

Hyphens may be used when a word is relatively new, but dropped over time as the word becomes more clearly known and accepted such as email. The use of hyphens also depends on the role of the word in a sentence: consider “in the long term” versus “long-term view”.

My preference is to use one combined word or two separate words, and only hyphenate where required to clarify the meaning.

Don’t confuse hyphens with the main types of (longer) dashes: the em rule and en rule. Hyphens and dashes have different uses. See the next blog for more on dashes.

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