Using the Hyphen

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Using the hyphen to write compound words

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3. Try to follow established usage

The hyphen and word splitting

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Hyphenating compound modifiers

Hyphenating is very important when using compound modifiers. A compound modifier is a compound word (a word made up of two or more words joined together) that modifies a noun. For example:

He was wearing a light-blue scarf.
He was wearing a light blue scarf. 

Without the hyphen, then the reader might think that the scarf itself weighed less than normal. Hyphenation is very important when using a compound word to modify a noun.

Hyphenating prefixes

One especially interesting area is the hyphenating of prefixes. A prefix is something added before the root of a word. For example, unhappy; un is the prefix and happy is the word. You can use the hyphen to avoid confusion with prefixes. For example:

She managed to recover her cushion.
She managed to re-cover her cushion.

Hyphenating the prefix changes the meaning of the sentence. The first example suggests that someone has managed to recover her missing cushion, while the second example clarifies that she has actually managed to get a new cover on her cushion.

You should always hyphenate prefixes when either a capital letter or number follows:

post-Napoleonic Europe
pre-1960s popular music

You should also hyphenate if the prefix is added to a word that already contains a hyphen:

Their post-globe-trotting days

Finally, if the hyphen is added to a compound word that contains a white space then the existing white space should also be replaced with a hyphen:

He was a leader of the anti-cold-war movement


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3 thoughts on “Using the Hyphen

  1. You left out an important type of word splitting; call it, perhaps, “suspended affixation”:

    We sell both right- and left-handed scissors.
    Do you need four-, eight-, or twelve-foot boards?

    Note that in the second example it’s not a space but a comma on the “broken-off” end of the hyphens.

    Mark Mandel
    Dr. Whom
    Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

    P.S.: You probably want to fix “Only the the hyphen when necessary”
    P.P.S.: And “inters-
    tellar”, which should be split between the prefix “inter-” and the root “stell-“.

  2. may I ask a question as to what is correct from the two: (1) Records Check (2) Records-check. Do they have different meanings or are they just the same?

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