The Remedy of the Week: Hyphenation

Each week Hannah discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she tackles the thorny issue of hyphenation.

To hyphenate, or not to hyphenate, that is the question

A question many of us spend far too long agonising over. At one time or another, we have all sat staring at a compound word, wondering, ‘Should I use a hyphen? Or is it all one word? Or is it two separate words?’ Even with the most common of phrases, it is difficult not to second-guess ourselves.

Faced with such a dilemma, you may decide to look the phrase up in the dictionary, only to find to your horror that, in many cases, both the hyphenated and unhyphenated forms are listed as acceptable. Or you may look in two different dictionaries and find conflicting advice. The hyphen is one of the most bafflingly unpredictable punctuation marks and its usage varies vastly across house styles.

Compound modifiers

One context where hyphenation is generally agreed upon is when two or more words together modify a noun. This is known as a compound modifier. The general rule of thumb is that if a compound modifier precedes a noun, it should be hyphenated. In this case, the compound acts as an attributive adjective.

the well-known problem of hyphenation (attributive)

In contrast, if a compound modifier follows a noun, it should not be hyphenated. Here, the compound acts as a predicative adjective.

the problem of hyphenation is well known (predicative)

However, some compound modifiers are simply never hyphenated, regardless of where they appear in a sentence. For instance, compounds where the first element is an adverb ending -ly should not be hyphenated.

a widely used word

the word is widely used

Equally, if a compound modifier is made up of two nouns, it is not hyphenated.

the primary school teacher

Other uses

Hyphens can also be used:

  • to spell out numbers from 21 to 99 (e.g. forty-two, seventy-nine);
  • for compass points (e.g. south-east, north-by-northwest);
  • in lists which have common elements omitted (e.g. first-, second- and third-place prizes).

Hyphen in decline?

These days, there is an increasing trend to use hyphens more sparingly. They are often seen to clutter up a text unnecessarily. While hyphens are frequently used when a new word is coined, as the word becomes more widely used and recognised, its hyphen is often done away with.

Consider, for instance, the word ‘email’. Both the concept and the word are now so ubiquitous that the original hyphenated form, ‘e-mail’, is considered obsolete. In contrast, newer terms like ‘e-commerce’ and ‘e-reader’ retain their hyphens.

Nonetheless, there are cases in which hyphens need to be used in order to avoid ambiguity. For example, the verb ‘re-cover’, meaning ‘to put a new cover on’, is hyphenated to distinguish it from ‘recover’.

The remedy

Avoid ambiguity

The most important factor to consider when deciding whether to hyphenate a compound word is whether a hyphen is necessary to avoid ambiguity. If you want to describe the sea as ‘deep-blue’ in reference to its colour, a hyphen is needed to distinguish it from a ‘deep, blue sea’.

If there is no possibility for ambiguity, it is really a matter of personal choice. If you are working to a house style, there should be guidance on hyphenation. Remember that style guides do vary; there are no hard-and-fast rules. Many people find the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors a helpful guide on phrases that commonly cause difficulties.

Ensure consistency

It is also vital to ensure that, whatever decisions you make with regard to hyphenation, they are carried out consistently. Variation in hyphenation or spacing looks unprofessional and can distract a reader from the text.

If you are writing a long text with many instances of hyphenation, it can be hard to keep track of all your style choices. In this case, it is worth considering hiring a proofreader who can ensure clarity and consistency throughout your writing.


Hannah Jones is a professional freelance proofreader and owner of The Remedy of Errors.

Visit her website at The Remedy of Errors. She can also be found on Twitter @remedyoferrorsFacebook and LinkedIn.