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The Hyphen: Don't Abandon Me! (punctuation Pt 2).

Updated on November 23, 2010
The Hyphen is Under Threat! photo credit
The Hyphen is Under Threat! photo credit

This Little Chap Can Make a World of Difference!

Words beginning with "Hy" always engender a frisson of excitement in this wordsmith. Like "hydrophobia," much more colourful and descriptive than the prosaic rabies. Or "hydrofoil," skimming across the waves and 'foiling the action of the currents and waves. Or, may I? “hymen,” the last barrier between frustrated youth and paradise (Ah! you romantic!).

So hyphen has a head start (head-start?) with me. Yet this mild method of tying two separate words together, etc., with a dash - if not with outright élan - has roused men of letters and others into fury.

Winston Churchill said hyphens were a “blemish and to be avoided wherever possible.” What one had actually done to him is unclear. Even the august Oxford University Press of New York was seen to grumble in an old edition, “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad!” Incredible.

Many find hyphens indispensable. I use them all the time, rightly or wrongly. Often, they are mandatory in pinning-down (ahem) the meaning of a sentence and phrase. How about “little used car?” Was the car tiny, or not used much, the hyphen makes this clear. (little-used car).

“soused herring seller,” Was he pissed as a parrot or merely going about his business flogging fish as usual? (soused-herring seller) And the 15-odd members of the Labour cabinet would certainly be a bit whacky if the description lost its protective hyphen. (15 odd members...etc.).

Most of these “hy” or “hyph” words come from the Greek. This race was undoubtedly the father of punctuation.

Hyphens have other uses, one being they separate into two manageable chunks words that would be clumsy and puzzling to pronounce without them, such as “coattail” (coat-tail), or “cufflinks,” “cuff-links.” (written both ways).

Not only is the use of hyphens useful and tidy, it adds to the attraction of prose and also makes its way into speech as well. You don’t say “coattails,” when you speak, but “coat...tails,” with a slight break to fully describe what you mean as well as assure the listener you damn well knew the word had two “T’s” in it.

(perish the thought that in modern-speak, the “T” sound has been practically eliminated (“eliminaDed”). As has so much else...innit, raht?

But let’s not get away from the poor old hyphen just yet.

Writers such as Joyce must have hated the hyphen like a devil’s curse. Perhaps he was writing for today’s youth when he ran words together, unpunctuated or even separated by any white space. “snotgreen,” and “”scrotumtightening,” are two picturesque examples.

Try telling a young person on the telephone what a double-barrelled name is, if you are unfortunate, like me, in having one. I only use it because it is de rigueur in Latin America where I lived for many years: both your father’s and mother’s surnames are commonly used; my name, Robert Challen-Mercer, actually sprung from this usage and is not really double-barrelled at all. I added the “de” (Robert Challen de Mercer) to help, but have been described as Robert Challen D Mercer ever since. I gave up, more or less, when I received a letter from one of the morons addressed to “Robert Challen Hyphen.“ Sorry to bore you with that, and I am unspamable (un-spam-able?) should anyone have the idea of mailing me from Nigeria about millions waiting to be paid to me, insisting I lengthen my Johnson, or requesting details of various bank accounts. I don’t need the money, give it to the starving kids in your crap country; I have a sufficiency, and I don’t own a bank there!

Many words are lost completely without their hyphen permanently attached, such as “co-respondent,” “re-formed,” and “re-mark.” As you can see, they change their meaning completely when the hyphen is removed. I mean, rock bands often “re-form” but perhaps are less often “reformed.” And their audience would be a “cross-section” of the public, unless they performed badly, when they would be the “cross section” of the public.

Numbers should use hyphens when being spelled out (common mistake). “She’s twenty-one today.” With nouns and nouns, “Heathrow-Kennedy” flight. With adjectives to adjective, “American-British” relations have suffered recently. I don’t know why, but there is a shorter hyphen available to he publishing industry called the “en-rule,” not on our keyboards to my knowledge.

Noun qualifying phrases, such as “wrought-iron table,” takes a hyphen, “solid-silver pendant.” The bus leaves at 10 o’clock, but is the “ten-o’clock bus.”

Many prefixes not mentioned so far require hyphens, “un-British,” anti-apartheid,” “quasi-legal.”

Spelling out words for any reason such as emphasis takes a hyphen , although it’s hard to think off-hand when this might be really necessary...”E-N-G-L-A-N-D.”

Even those authors striving to create new single words from those traditionally separated will have trouble without the hyphen in many cases, such as “de-icer,” deicer. “shell-like,” shelllike!”

Reaching the end of the page and continuing a word onto the next line is less of a problem with computers which sort the thing out automatically. The hyphen traditionally took care of this by allowing the hyphen to care for both parts of any long word. It was a task previously, as the word needed splitting in a logical place to avoid things like “painstaking” becoming “pain-staking,” rather than “pains-taking.”

Stammerers have their own special use of the hyphen allotted to them in speech. Many might not be too enthused as they read they “w-w-w-wanted t-t-t-to learn t-t-t-to hyphenate p-p-p-properly!”

Why on Earth so many erudite folk and publications are constantly clamouring for the erasure of this poor little chap, the hyphen, I cannot say.

Both Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Oxford Dictionary of English (2003) indicate that is should be less used and might be heading for extinction.

I mean, yes, we are all sometimes confused about when or not to use a hyphen..I am of the “when in doubt, shove one in” brigade. Words or phrases are much less hurt and changed by the inclusion of a hyphen than they are when one absolutely should have been used and leaving it out changed the whole meaning of the word (as we have seen herein, (not “here-in,” for some obscure reason).

We have by far the most complex language in wide, general use on the whole planet. Nobody ever learns to speak or write it absolutely correctly (double adverb? Bad!?). No one spending their formative years in some other. non-English-speaking country has a hope of really becoming bi-lingual in English...or completely conversant with the slippery hyphen, but good luck trying!

I had some help with this article from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” by Lynne Truss. Fantastic little tome on puntuation if you want to go into this painful subject in-depth. Ha!






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    • diogenes profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Is that "my" Berta? If not some coincidence!

      Bob (Roberto!) x are you going to write on here, too??

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Hi Bob,

      I really had a wonderful time reading this article, because it's the kind of nice humour I love! As a teacher, I also find it very helpful. Thanks!


    • htodd profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      Very helpful diogenes,Thanks and a Merry Christmas

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks Jbgnet: Glad you liked article. I will have a look at your site soon as....Bob

    • jbgnet profile image


      7 years ago

      Funny and helpful. Thanks!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks again, Chris. I am a bit like the doctor who hears, "Physician, heal thyself!" Now I have written these hubs on punctuation, I have to do better myself! Bob

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 

      7 years ago from Vermont, USA

      I have long been a fan of the hyphen, and now I am becoming one of yours.


    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      This series – punctuation – is worthy to be bookmarked in a special folder, and to be read until fully understood – especially by us who practice English as a second language. Thanks a lot for taking the time to hub this important subject.

    • FloBe profile image

      Flo Belanger 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I do like the hyphen and I enjoyed your humorous expose on the subject. I'll be back to read more of your hubs!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      As a HUGE fan of the hyphen, I am most pleased to see this brilliant tribute to an endangered punctuation mark. Your writing is witty, fun, and insightful. Bravo!

    • diogenes profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi Rebecca. I wish I had as much success understanding the mechanizations of adsense, etc!

      Hello hello, I noticed your articles are much better lately....Bob

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      Grammar - I had my feathers ruffled lately about it. Thank you for brilliantly written hub, in a slightly humorous way. I enjoyed reading it.

    • Rebecca E. profile image

      Rebecca E. 

      7 years ago from Canada

      well, you've out done yourself, and my poor mind is finally "understanding" this grammar thing ( I use qutations since well, it is a thng that I wasn't really taught)...many thanks to you.

    • diogenes profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Peter...Thanks for kind comment

      Austinstar...I lost my AP style book! you have an electronic essay that weighs next to nothing...Bob

    • Austinstar profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      This is laughingly-funny! It's always amazed me that we have spelling bees to learn how to spell, and the AP style book to learn how to write. And English dictionaries! Arnold Schwarzenegger can't lift them, LOL.

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 

      7 years ago from South East Asia

      Thank you. I really enjoyed this. The mix of humour and example was perfect.

    • diogenes profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from UK and Mexico

      That's insightful, cathylynn. It's a good reason to chop up these little resources and put them into "sound-bites" on the internet, and makes me feel a bit better about the shades of plagiarization one can't quite escape from, no matter how you color the article up, add and change things. Bob

    • cathylynn99 profile image


      7 years ago from northeastern US

      great examples. never hurts me to think about my grammar. my husband read truss' book. i can only stomach it in little bits. this article was the perfect length.


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