Hyphen help us–

hyphenated wordsYou thought hell was getting that manuscript written and ready for submission. You thought the rest was going to be easy.

Oh, no, my friend.

True hell is discovered in the editing process of your manuscript. This is when you realize that (among other failings) your knowledge of  how hyphenated words really work is somewhat lacking.

Oh sure, everyone agrees that a compound word is a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning. Most of us even know that there are two types of compounds: those written as single words, with no hyphenation and which are called “closed compounds”– such as the word “bedspread,”  AND  the “hyphenated compounds,” such as “jack-in-the-box” and “self-worth.”

But there is a third group, and they are the bane of my life–those mysterious, ephemeral denizens of the deepest corner of writer’s hell, called open compounds. These seemingly innocent instruments of torture are written as separate words–the nouns “school bus” and “decision making,” for example.

But how do I tell if  it’s one word, two words or a hyphenated word?  

1. Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

For example:

covert learning techniques, health care reform, day treatment program, sex role differences, grade point average

2. Do use one in a temporary compound that is used as an adjective before a nounuse a hyphen if the term can be misread or if the term expresses a single thought:

For example:

“the children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences, whereas if the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a household headed by two parents.  In that case, a properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.

IMG7663. We also use hyphens for compound words that fall into these catagories:

a. the base word is capitalized: pro-African

b. numbers: post-1910, twenty-two

c. an abbreviation: pre-ABNA manuscript

d. more than one word: non-achievement-oriented students

d. All “self-” compounds whether they are adjectives or nouns such as self-report, self-esteem,  self-paced.

4. We hyphenate words that could be misunderstood when there are diverse meanings if they’re unhyphenated:

re-pair (to pair again) as opposed to repair (to mend)

re-form  (to form again) as opposed to reform (to improve)

5. We hyphenate words in which the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:

metaanalysis, antiintellectual

But really, unless you are a technical writer, how often are we going to use these terms? Hence, the confusion when we DO use them.

Getting it write online dot com says, “One way to decide if a hyphen is necessary is to see if the phrase might be ambiguous without it. For example, “large-print paper” might be unclear written as “large print paper” because the reader might combine “print” and “paper” as a single idea rather than combining “large” and “print.” Another such example is “English-language learners.” Without the hyphen, a reader might think we are talking about English people who are learning any language rather than people who are learners of the English language.”

Write most words formed with prefixes and suffixes as one word with NO hyphen.

Prefixes: Afterglow, extracurricular, multiphase, socioeconomic

Sufixes: Arachnophobia, wavelike, angiogram

dictionaryxHooray for Merriam-Webster! One can also look the word up in an online dictionary, to see the various different ways it can be combined. Just go to:


Now the real point of all this is that no matter how much I know when I am editing for another author, I always manage to screw up my own work amazingly well–it’s like my finger has a twitch that absolutely MUST add a hyphen! (Or a semi-colon, but that’s another post.)

Curses on the hyphen!


Filed under Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

6 responses to “Hyphen help us–

  1. In Ghoupallean, the hyphen is used to avoid having three consonant phonemes in a row. Otherwise, I use them whenever the sun shines or the wind blows sort of gentle-like and oogly-moogly.


  2. My pet peeve is “no-one” which I’ve written with a hyphen until late in 2012 when I surrendered to “no one”. I maintain there is a difference!


    • i see the sense in your argument, as I have hyphenated some words habitually for the same reason–my mind mind sees the difference. However, the beatings are working–I’ve begun to remember not to hyphenate saddle-bags. (As opposed to other bags.) *sigh*


  3. I feel your pain and Stephen’s above. I agree. No-one should be hyphenated and yet, I too, have given in!


    • our work is brilliant, Johanna–Somehow I have this image of you writing perfect prose on the first try, lol! Sadly for me – relearning things I once knew, but somehow forgot is the difficult part.