All hail the mighty-yet-unsung hyphen

Published 8:54 am Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie


Yes, the hyphen is decreasing in its usage, thanks to the Internet’s push for all things to be one word. Even Wal-Mart has become Walmart. Hyper-link is now hyperlink, and so on. But it still is a handy punctuation mark.

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The mark often gets called a dash, and hyphens are used more than dashes, but dashes are longer.

Example of a hyphen and a dash: The third-graders — deviating from their scheduled route — stopped at a hobby farm to see a pot-belly pig.

Your phone number has a hyphen in it, not a dash: 373-1411. Not a single web address employs a dash, yet people call it dash. Nope. It’s a hyphen:

The main role of a hyphen is for compound modifiers. Compound modifiers are those times when it takes two or more words to form the adjective that modifies the noun. So normally we might say: The ornery cowboy jingled his spurs.

But what if we need to describe that guy a little more. Instead of ornery, we could say: The low-down cowboy jingled his spurs. Or we could say: The low-down, double-crossing, dirty-dealing, two-timing, no-good, back-stabbing, ornery cowboy jingled his Montana-made spurs.

The hyphen pulls low and down into a single modifying term.

That’s necessary because a back stabbing cowboy means a back that stabs a cowboy. A back-stabbing cowboy is a cowboy prone to stabbing people in the back.

Some other examples are: The fourth-grade field trip reached the space museum. A man-eating shark was caught. The top-ranked team lost in the opening round. The steel-belted radials lasted 25,000 miles. The construction project featured a 36,000-square-foot apartment building. The disease-carrying tick must’ve landed on your head. The Albert Lea-area residents stopped by. Right now, I have one of them must-have-it-now-or-else impulses for my mom’s award-winning squash stew.

OK, here’s a tricky part. Remember how your teacher taught that every rule seems to have an exception. Your teacher was right. The exception here is that some words are two words that writers treat as one word. I call this “the hot dog rule.”

Hot dog is two words, but writers never hyphenate it. To the mind, it pretty much functions like a single word. The same goes for several other words: school bus, race car, orange juice, high school. Latin terms get the same treatment: ad hoc, per se, pro bono.

I am going to do some pro bono work, then go buy some hot dog buns.

Hyphenation is decreasing because more and more words are either being treated like hot dog or they are being made into a single word.

Some compounds are just words joined by a hyphen to help readers, even if they aren’t modifying a noun. A good example is mother-in-law. There are many of these across the English language: twenty-four, X-ray, R-rated, first-graders, Mexican-American.

And then there are the prefixes and suffixes. Mostly, the rule goes like this: If the prefix or suffix has common uses, don’t hyphenate. If it is uncommon, hyphenate. Let’s take the prefix of non-. Common uses would be nonprofit, nonstop,

nonbonding, nonpartisan, nonnegotiable and so on.

(If I were king, I would say, “The next person who hyphenates nonprofit gets the ax! Same goes for bipartisan. Use your dictionaries, people.” OK, maybe not the ax. How about a tickle feather?)

Uncommon uses would be: non-talkative, non-church-related, non-

hegemonic. And usually in those situations, writers just write “not,” as in: She was not talkative.

There are exceptions, of course. If the prefix ends in a vowel and the word it joins begins with a vowel, generally use a hyphen: re-elect, co-opting, pre-eminent.

Yes, coordinate and cooperate are exceptions to the exception.

Often, co- retains its hyphen anyway when referring to an occupation or status, whether nouns, adjectives or verbs. Examples are: co-workers, co-author, co-sign, co-star, co-pilot. However, this guideline is fading, too, because it is rather ambiguous. I wonder how long it lasts. The best thing to do with some words is use that little dictionary on your computer and go with the first example given as the predominant use. My computer dictionary already says coauthor doesn’t need a hyphen. People like to hyphenate co-worker because without a hyphen, coworker looks kind of like cow worker.

The rule of common or uncommon applies elsewhere: coexist, coequal, cofound.

All right, enough of hyphens. One thing about adverbs is they never need a hyphen. Adverbs are pretty much words that end in -ly, except family. So you never write: The strikingly-beautiful child. The adverb strikingly is modifying the adjective beautiful, not the noun child, so there is no compound and the hyphen is not needed. If you can’t remember all that, just remember not to hyphenate the -ly words.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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