Hyphens – use or avoid?

Following up my February blog on editing being about making decisions, one difficult decision in achieving consistency is when to use hyphens or not. I spend a lot of editing time considering hyphens.

After finally reading bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss recently, it confirmed my ideas on hyphenation. Over time, my increasing personal preference is to avoid them and use either one combined word or two separate words, and only hyphenate where absolutely essential to clarify the meaning.

As always in editing, it is important to be consistent throughout a document. There are several approaches to consistency in decisisions about hyphens.

  • Choose one dictionary and follow its recommendations, although it may not contain every combination.
  • Aim for internal consistency within a document, with either a minimalist or maximalist approach.
  • Be aware of a writer’s preferences or an institutional style guide, if any, for hyphenation.

Writers and organisations often have their own preference, ranging from minimalists with no hyphens at all, to maximalists hyphenating all compound words and descriptive phrases. Editors should check carefully before making major changes to hyphenation throughout a long document such as adding or deleting hyphens. A style sheet can ensure consistency and make editing decisions easier.

My previous blog here outlines 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 disease-free.
  • Prevent misreading of words starting with prefixes such as anti, ex and re followed by vowels such as re-enter, but even this use is declining.

A traditional use of hyphens in descriptive phrases such as ‘in the long-term view’ or ‘in a 3-month period’ is not usually needed to clarify meaning and avoid confusion, but it can depend on the specific context.

For advice on editing, please contact me on rhdaniels@bigpond.com

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