When creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, I discovered that hyphens are the gateway to writer’s hell. I put together compound words, hyphenated to make them specific to that world.
I did this, not realizing I would be stuck writing these words consistently hyphenated for years… and years….
Take my advice and do not use a hyphen in your invented words unless the universe will dissolve without it.
In the real world, if a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is firmly established, a hyphen is not necessary.
Words that are single words and don’t need a hyphen:
- (a) breakup as in (a) divorce, break up as in taking apart
- comeback as in succeeding again, come back as in return to me
- roundup as in a rodeo, round up as in a review or the next highest round number
A few words do require a hyphen to ensure their meaning is what you intended:
Wikipedia says: Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that jointly modify the meaning of another word. When a compound modifier other than an adverb–adjective combination appears before a term, the compound modifier is often hyphenated to prevent misunderstandings, such as in American-football player or little-celebrated paintings. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether the writer means a “player of American football” or an “American player of football” and whether the writer means paintings that are “little celebrated” or “celebrated paintings” that are little.
Compound modifiers can extend to three or more words, as in ice-cream-flavored candy, and can be adverbial as well as adjectival (spine-tinglingly frightening). However, if the compound is a familiar one, it is usually unhyphenated. For example, at least one style guide prefers the construction high school students, to high-school students.
Words that DO need a hyphen:
- An English-speaking country
- A time-saving device
- A thirty-floor building
Some compounds are improvised to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like
- free-for-all (as in a rumpus)
Context determines whether to hyphenate or not. Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” If your intended meaning is clear without the hyphen, leave it out.
Wikipedia offers the following examples:
- Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
- Wild-goose chase (a hunt for resulting in nothing) as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a chasing a goose that is wild.
- Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which in legalese could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
- Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which implies you have no liability protection).
A crucial task for you as an author is to make a stylesheet that pertains to your manuscript. Create a list detailing words that must be capitalized, which ones are hyphenated, and include the proper spellings of names for all people and places.
Some people use Scrivener for this and swear by it. For myself, I don’t need a fancy word-processing program with a difficult learning curve—my life is complicated enough as it is. You can make a simple list or go wild and make a spreadsheet. I use Excel to make storyboards that are my style guides for each novel or tale I write, and for every book I edit.
You can do this in Google Docs too, and that program is free–the perfect price for the starving author.
Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:
- List invented Words and all Names spelled the way you intend them to be written forever, noting whether it is two words (De Mal), hyphenated (De-Mal), or two syllables connected with an apostrophe (D’Mal)
- Note the page number on which the word first appears so you can check back for consistency.
- If it is not a person’s name, list the meaning and how it is used, for example, if the word denotes a city, or an animal, or plant, etc.
Refer to this style sheet frequently and update it with every change you make to spelling in your manuscript.
I learned this the hard way. Making a stylesheet for a book after it has been written is a daunting task, and most editors will ask you for one when they accept your submission. Some editors refer to this as the ‘bible’ for that manuscript because all editorial decisions regarding consistency will be based on the spellings and style treatments you have established for your work.
I do suggest you go lightly when it comes to hyphens and apostrophes in your invented words. The reader likely won’t notice them too much, but they can become annoyances for you when you’re trying to ensure consistency in your narrative. Whether it is a handwritten list, an Excel spreadsheet, a WORD document, or in a program like Scrivener, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be invaluable to you and your editor.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Hyphen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hyphen&oldid=824118099 (accessed February 11, 2018).