Skip to Content

The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 6: What's all the fuss over hyphens?


What's all the fuss over hyphens?

President Woodrow Wilson once declared (heavens knows why) that the hyphen was ‘the most un-American thing in the world'. Observant readers will have noticed that he couldn't have said this (and no one could have written a report of his words) without a hyphen; thus perhaps proving that the President was blithely unaware of grammatical irony. I was surprised that any non-nerd figure should express such animus towards a grammatical detail but, it appears, he was not alone.

Hyphens, like apostrophes, are tricky little diacritical marks. They are easy to get wrong, and the rules for their use can appear arcane and pointless. But they certainly have their uses, even if it's only to show off your double-barrelled surname. In this article I will look at hyphen usage and how it may be changing; for the better or worse is a matter of opinion.

One reason why grammatical markers like hyphens and apostrophes are tricky is, I think, because you can't hear them in the spoken language; they appear only in written language and, more particularly, in printed English. Written English has tighter rules than its spoken equivalent (it could be argued that spoken language doesn't actually have rules per se); but as language use changes over time, the changes eventually percolate into writing and printing too.

First, let's look at the conventional usage of hyphens. Hyphens join words together to form compound words. The circumstances in which they do so are varied, but the basic aim is clarity, and to avoid ambiguity. For instance, if I write the phrase ‘small-business owner' you know exactly what I mean; however, if I write ‘small business owner' an element of ambiguity has crept in: do I mean the owner of a small business or the small owner of a business? The hyphen has pre-empted the ambiguity.

My use of ‘pre-empted' demonstrates another use of hyphens. They can be used to guide the pronunciation of words that contain double-letter combinations that are not pronounced in the same way as their un-hyphenated equivalents (‘preen' for instance). This is more of a convention in UK than US English, and its application is annoyingly inconsistent in my view. In times past, this distinction was made by placing a diacritical mark over the second letter (think of the word ‘naïve', for example); some of these usages survive and thus the modern landscape is confusingly cluttered.

They are also used in the rule of attribution; that is, when a noun phrase is used as an adjective. Consider the phrase ‘long term': if I refer to it on its own (the prospects are poor in the long term), it requires no hyphen, as it's a noun phrase here; but if I apply it as an adjective - ‘the long-term outcome' - it does. That's how the rule works and, in my humble opinion, it's a good rule and not too difficult to grasp.

But times change. Associated Press (AP) produces a style guide (the AP Stylebook) that is very influential in American publishing and printing. And recently, they have suggested that some compound attributions are unnecessary. The example they initially gave - ‘first quarter touchdown' - comes from American football. So it was appropriate that, among the veritable avalanche of horrified objections from writers and editors, the pithiest response came from a sports writer: ‘Over my still-warm dead body.'

AP has taken a step back now, though they are still quietly lobbying for a relaxation of the rules. The latest version of the guide says, ‘If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don't use it.' Which, it seems to me, is pretty much where we came in.

I find this especially odd because, in recent times, I have noticed a shift in the opposite direction in American writing. Increasingly, I see novel hyphenated phrases in both self-published and commercially published books. (I see it in UK English too but not to the same extent.) Nonetheless, either a lot of people are making the same mistakes, or there is a genuine change in the way people are using hyphens.

Here are a few examples I've seen recently: short-answer, on-board (without attribution; we were still on-board the ship), off-the-cuff (that in a UK book, again unattributed), bullet-holes, plea-bargain - all phrases that, in the past, would be hyphen free (or hyphen-free phrases).

It's possible that some of those nice people at AP noticed something similar, of course, and that's why they published some advice on the matter. The strength of the reaction must have come as quite a surprise, in that case. And (in case you're wondering, AP recently proclaimed that it was fine to start a sentence with a connective such as ‘and'; thus, among other things, bringing one W Shakespeare Esq in from the grammatical cold) despite their best efforts, AP and others may be swimming against the tide if the increase in hyphenation proceeds apace.

What this all shows, more than anything, is that language, even the written version of it, is no lapidary edifice with hard and fast rules (hard-and-fast rules?). It is an organic, dynamic system, versatile enough to fit any situation, with soft edges and permeable boundaries. It changes as we change; as our habits, attitudes and mores shift over time. It also suggests that King Cnut is not a suitable role model for editors.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

The Pedant 1: how to make your editor happy 1: Accents

The Pedant 2: how to make your editor happy 2: Dialogue tags

The Pedant 3: how to make your editor happy 3: Bells and whistles? The use of bold, italics and capital letters in prose fiction

The Pedant 4: how to make your editor happy 4: Spoilt for choice: formats and fonts

The Pedant 5: how to make your editor happy 5: The trouble with ‘as'