The Hyphen Puzzle
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The Hyphen Puzzle

by Bill Ball

You may have already studied the Punctuation Guide within this website, but here, we take a closer look at one particular aspect - HYPHENS

Writing in 1926 in 'Modern English Usage', Fowler said, 'The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English education'. If our national newspapers are anything to go by, the chaos is still with us today. But is the education system really to blame? For once, I do not think that it is. Fowler's own article on the hyphen that followed the opening sentence quoted above was so difficult to understand that he probably unwittingly added to the chaos. Sir Ernest Gowers saw fit to rewrite the article completely in his revision of the book some 40 years later.

The simple truth is that there are no clear-cut rules to guide us; and without rules how can the correct uses of the hyphen be taught? Experts often disagree amongst themselves, and even when they do agree they frequently do not follow their own advice. Now, here are some of my suggestions and comments.

  1. Hyphens should not be used unless they are necessary to help the reader to understand what the writer intended. Most authorities agree with this but seem unable to agree what 'necessary' means.
  2. Hyphens should never be used where the first word of any two-word compound adjective is an 'ly' adverb, as in, for example, 'A truly magnificent performance' or 'A richly deserved prize'. In the preface of the 1994 reprint of 'The Oxford Modern English Dictionary', the executive editor, Julia Swannell, uses the phrase 'a conveniently-sized book'. It is the duty of an adverb to modify (or qualify) the word next to it; and in 'conveniently-sized' the adverb does not need the prop of a hyphen to show that the following word is related to it. This example was taken at random, and is in no way meant to be a criticism of Julia Swannell. I could have taken examples from scores of other sources. 
  3. Where the first word of the compound adjective is an adverb that does not end in 'ly' (much, most, very etc), the hyphen should still not be used unless the adverb might otherwise be mistaken for an adjective with the same spelling. In 'A little-known actor', for example, 'little' is indeed an adverb, but the hyphen is necessary because without it 'little' could be taken to be an adjective, that is, a little actor who is known, rather than an actor who is little known. In 'A very pretty lady', on the other hand, 'very' is also an adverb, but because there is no possibility of confusion with the adjective 'very' the hyphen should not be used.
  4. Where the compound adjective contains more than one adverb, there is still no need for hyphens, although some authorities would no doubt argue that there is. In 'The most frequently used websites', for example, 'most' modifies 'frequently', and 'frequently' modifies 'used'. There is absolutely no need for hyphens here as the meaning is crystal clear without them. Any temptation to use a hyphen or hyphens in this type of compound should always be resisted.

Hyphens can be ugly things, especially when they are used to avoid repeating a word, as in, 'full- and part-time teachers' for example. What on earth is wrong with 'full-time and part-time teachers? Hyphens are also a nuisance to writers and printers alike, and we should do without them wherever possible. The modern compound 'e-mail', for example, could easily lose its hyphen, and in fact I have always used it as a single word (email). Many other two-part compounds that are presently hyphenated ('bail-out', 'tip-off' etc) could also be made into single words, and their hyphens would not be missed. The authorities must be encouraged to view the loss of some of their hyphens as a step forward and not a step backward.

So far we have looked mainly at situations where hyphens should definitely not be used. This is because there are more errors committed by putting hyphens in where they are not needed than there are by omitting them when they are necessary as an aid to being understood. Situations where hyphens are necessary, desirable or optional will be dealt with in the second part of this article. In readiness for part two, it will be useful if we just remind ourselves of the meanings of a couple of words that are often used by authorities when discussing hyphenated compounds. The words are 'attributively' and 'predicatively'. Compounds are used 'attributively' when they are placed before their nouns, and they are used 'predicatively' when they are contained in what is said about the subject of a sentence. In 'The bleary-eyed man', the compound adjective is used attributively, and in 'The man is bleary eyed' it is used predicatively.