The Hyphen Puzzle (part 2)
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The Hyphen Puzzle (part 2)

In the first part of this guide, we looked mainly at examples of compounds where hyphens should not be used. Here, now, are my further suggestions and comments.

1. Two-word compound adjectives (not containing adverbs) usually need hyphens when they are used attributively:

  • A red-hot poker.
  • An ivy-covered cottage.
  • His old-fashioned suit.
  • A load-bearing wall.

So, too, do compounds such as 'out of tune' and 'up to date':

  • An out-of-tune piano.
  • Where are the up-to-date figures?

But when they are used predicatively ('The poker is red hot', 'The figures are up to date'), hyphens would not usually be necessary.

2. The prefix 'ex' (where it means former) requires careful handling. It does not matter whether we write 'ex-footballer' or 'ex footballer', or 'ex-model' or 'ex model'; but if the prefix is followed by more than one word we have to be careful. For example, 'ex-marine biologist' could be a biologist who used to be a marine; and 'ex-fighter pilot' could be a pilot who used to be a fighter. The solution is to hyphenate only the words following the 'ex' (ex marine-biologist, ex fighter-pilot). Some authorities suggest using two hyphens (ex-marine-biologist, ex-fighter-pilot); but as 'ex' here means former it does not need a hyphen after it.

3. The hyphen must be used to distinguish, where necessary, between those words that begin with 're' and those that are prefixed by 're' (meaning once more). Here are some examples:

Reform (abolish etc) but Re-form (form again).
Relay (a race etc) but Re-lay (lay again).
Resign (from an office etc) but Re-sign (sign again).

(The much quoted example, 'All the professionals have resigned and will be available for next week's match' will serve its purpose here).

4. Sometimes the absence of hyphens can lead to ambiguity:
Twenty three year old horses
Fresh cream cakes

Does the first example mean that the horses are twenty-three-years old, that there are twenty horses that are three-years old, or that there are twenty-three year-old horses? Does the second example mean Fresh-cream cakes, or Fresh cream-cakes?

5. The most important problem with hyphens is that the authorities cannot agree whether simple compound nouns consisting of a noun preceded by a noun used as an adjective should be hyphenated or not. Here are some examples with the noun 'water' used in this way. I have deliberately left out hyphens:

Water bed Water melon Water meter Water lily Water main Water pipe

Some authorities would hyphenate some of these compounds and others would not. The inconsistency is staggering; and it is the same with countless other simple compound nouns where the first word is a noun used as an adjective. Two examples will be sufficient: 'House' as in 'House agent', and 'Ice' as in 'Ice skater'.

The simple fact is that when these compounds are used on their own in the predicate they should never be given hyphens. Are any of the following less easy to read without hyphens?

  • Have you seen my water bed?
  • Pass me the water melon.
  • Are you the house agent?

As attributes of course they may well require hyphens, but never as simple compounds.

I think I have covered the main problem areas with hyphens. Other one-off situations will frequently arise, and we must then decide for ourselves whether to hyphenate or not. For example, we do occasionally have to decide whether to hyphenate 'designations of rank or office' Please check the dictionaries and other authorities for these examples (and many others) to witness firsthand the chaos that Fowler referred to all those years ago:

  • Vice Chairman
  • Attorney General
  • Field Marshal
  • Lieutenant Colonel

I would not use hyphens in any of them. On second thoughts, and having reminded myself that hyphens are essential if they are needed for clarity, perhaps 'Vice Chairman' could suggest that the Chairman is into vice. 'Vice-Chairman' can have its hyphen.

The falling-of-the-accent rule of Fowler has some merit; but on balance it is better to ignore it and rely on the less complicated advice given in this article. Hyphens would then be used only when they are necessary as an aid to being understood.

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