Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Donít Be a Slave to Hyphen Insecurity
If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.
John Benbow in Manuscript and Proof
Everyone hates hyphens. They don’t make any sense—it seems there are a million exceptions to their rules. Yet an ill-placed hyphen or lack of hyphen when there should be one can make a sentence stick out like a sore thumb and the writer look amateur. This post is devoted to an area of hyphenation that drives people especially batty: the treatment of compound terms like “middle class” or “much despised.”
There are two main points to remember when dealing with this sort of thing:
- Never hyphenate an adverb ending in -ly (e.g., you would never write “the unjustly-accused innocent”). There is no happy union between -ly and a hyphen.
- Everything depends on where compound terms occur in a sentence—that is, their position. If you’ve got two words modifying a noun and they occur before that noun, smack that hyphen right on in there. So: “the upper-class neighbourhood,” “the open-ended arrangement.” If they occur after the noun, pump the brakes—take your finger away from the keyboard and stifle your sense of injustice at the weirdness of the rule. So: “the neighborhood was upper class,” and “the arrangement is open ended.”
Just remembering these two points can help you immensely when it comes to hyphenation.
As for words that don’t serve to modify a noun, like “email,” “toothache,” or “healthcare,” the best idea is to consult a recent edition of a good dictionary. Whether to hyphenate these, close them up, or leave them open changes over time and over dictionaries, so the only way to proceed is to check the word and then remain consistent throughout your document.