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Hyphenation: From H to En-Dash

Prominent ad in our weekly alternative newspaper: 60 Minute Erections!
Back in the day, I would not have appreciated one-minute erections, even if there were 60 of them. That's downright premature!

I am inclined to think that perhaps what the writer of this ad meant to say was this: 60-Minute Erections!
Now that gets your attention.

What a difference a line makes.

Maybe I should say a mark instead. Wouldn't want to give the wrong impression, like the horribly disruptive idea of 60 one-minute erections, apparently striking randomly throughout some unknown span of acutely embarrassing time.

Okay, time to get serious. Sort of. But the truth is that I really don't understand the dismissive attitude people nurse concerning hyphens. They simply leave them out. As though they don't matter.

People who think that the only good hyphen is a gone hyphen might feel less antipathy toward them if they instead thought of them geographically.

Adopting this larger view, in the geography of linguistics, hyphens are of course absent between any two separate and unrelated words (health, care); are once again absent when two earstwhile separate words become one word (healthcare); and finally enjoy their heyday in the state between no relation and one-wordedness (health-care).

As the language evolves, two-word combinations always seen in each others' company are engaged with a hyphen (ill-kempt) and, if it all works out, lose it in marriage (which, as we all know, doesn't always come to pass—we don't have illkempt, at least not yet).

Much like the theory of continental drift, wouldn't you say?

As you perhaps suspect by now, hyphens connect words, prefixes, and suffixes, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently.

This first section deals with hyphenation non-exceptions, if you will—a description of the Common Hyphen, the everyday Hyphen on the Street.

Other sections cover more amorphous hyphenation subjects—concepts that refuse to fit neatly into subtitles but that I nevertheless attempt manfully to force them into. These include (and currently, anyway, are limited to):

Meet the Hyphens
Rules, in general
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
With no further ado, then . . .

Rules and regs

Hyphens live (and a good life it is) between word combinations (usually two-word combinations, example intended) that, together, modify a following word: the grey-striped kitten This is important, so I'll say it again. Hyphens reside in three-word combinations in which the first word modifies the second word, which modifies a noun, as in:

The bullet-riddled body of the pack rat began to bloat in the sun.

As you will see, not all three-word combinations get hyphens, but suffice it right now to say that a heck of a lot of them do.

And when you understand the reason for the hyphen's placement, then you understand the reasons why they are not always welcome between those first two words.

We'll get to that exception later.

Meanwhile, back at the hyphen-happy three-word combination ranch, if the two modifying words follow instead of precede the modified word, they are not generally hyphenated: the kitten had grey stripes . . . although, in this case and not to confuse you, one could consider the two modifying words as a bona fide compound (and thus hyphenated) word: the kitten was grey-striped Why? Because that particular pair of words—grey-striped—is so often seen together that tongues are not even wagging any more. Everybody knows that something is going on. Donovan Dunn has already been there; it's old news. They have become a pair in a state of continual if informal engagement, and one day the twain just may possibly manifest that state of conjugal bliss, the no-longer-hyphenated conjoined single word, greystriped.

Not yet though—it is just still too early to call.

But with that sentimental example I have digressed.

Back at last to our riveting subject, two-word modifying constructions occurring before the modified word. These are hyphenated, and can consist of (and are not limited to but this is long enough already—savor your luck!) an adverb-adjective combination: a brindle-colored cow
a well-endowed matron,
a noun with an adjective: upper-end condos but condos at the upper end

low-rent bodyguards but bodyguards of the low-rent persuasion—aha, another modified word hence the hyphen!
a noun with an adverb or participle that together, when preceding the modified word, act as an adjective (what??-read on): decision-making process but the wrenching (wretched?) process of decision making,
the least-complex example but the example that is least complex is certainly not this one,
a compound consisting of an initial number modifying a noun: a two-lane exit
an 18-factor calculus problem from hell and see Numbers, below),
color terms modifying a noun: ruby-red lips
bottle-blond hair,
two nouns used coordinately to modify a word: a dog-cat duet but a duet of dog and cat, and, just to mix things up a bit, two or more adjectives used coordinately or in conflict whether or not they precede or follow the lucky word (lucky dog?): we performed a double-blind study but he felt duty-bound Don't look now, but that's another compound-word engagement!

Well, would you look at how much we've covered already. Don't pack up yet, however, for we do have a bit to go yet (eyes off that scroll-bar!—about as good as the jury instruction to disregard those words). Nobody ever promised that learning grammar was a rose garden. Or something like that.

Fancy a review of Rules, in general?
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
Hyphen Family

Compound Nouns and Pals

We come now to a great category that includes many fine examplars.

Hyphens occur between two nouns of equal "weight" used as a single compound word: actor-director
invalid-playboy (with emphasis on the first, not the second, syllable).
Speaking of compound nouns, hyphenate those that contain a preposition: tie-in, stick-up, go-between, hanger-on.

Hyphens occur in compound adjectival phrases: up-to-date calendar , but which three words then go on to retain hyphens even when not modifying another word (the calendar was up-to-date) because—you guessed it—a linguistic engagement occurred, although the matrimonial uptodate looks to be far in the future—but then, again, we did get nevertheless, did we not?;
in adverb-participle compounds: a smooth-talking snake-oil salesman; the snake-oil salesman was smooth talking—although this pair also might be compounded with a hyphen—smooth-talking; and, of course, in adjective-noun combinations: with long-term therapy; or the therapy that was long-term, in which long-term became a happily engaged hyphenated compound word, again (remember grey-striped?).
A variation on all of this is something common that trips up its share: The 15-year-old boys played soccer.
The boys were 15 years old.

Why is the first hyphenated but the second not?

Answer. The three words "15-year-old" modify "boys" and form an impromptu compound word; the three words "15 years old" do not modify a word and do not form a compound word.

The geographical theory of linguistics sounds more romantic all the time. (Sterling example of mixing metaphors there!)

top Rules, in general
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
Hyphen Family


Hyphenate compound numbers from 21 to 99 (twenty-one), and compound cardinal and ordinal numbers when written out, as they are when starting a sentence (twenty-first, second-best). Hyphenate fractions, whether used as adjectives (a slim one-fifth majority) or as compound words (one-fifth of the quasi politicos).

Still concerning numbers, hyphenate all page spans in references (p.91-102); in text, use en dashes (, obtained on a PC with [cntrl hyphen]).

top Rules, in general
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
Hyphen Family

Now for the sultry and mysterious Pre/Post-ixes

Here I will be referring to pre- and suff-ixes. (Or should that be suffices)? Prefixes, just to keep us on this particular same page, come before a word rootThe root word exists before the appendage of prefixes or suffixes or both—gaze is the root word of stargazer and suffixes come after.

Let's start unambiguously. Always hyphenate compound words that became compound because of the addition of these prefixes: all-, self-, and ex-. End of unambiguous, as the jury is still out on vice/vice-, and how about pseudo-?

And hyphenate compound words formed by virtue of these suffixes: -type, -elect, and -designate.

Use a hyphen after a prefix when the un-hyphenated word would have a different or ambiguous meaning (re-create; de-educate; co-pout [okay, maybe I made some up—but they do illustrate]).

One sometimes needs a hyphen to prevent such awkward combinations in compound words as two vowels or three consonants (hull-less; buff-frog; and of course the similar and inimitable bull-log), but exceptions exist (cooperate; micro-oophorectomy). (Avoid me as a "Scrabble" player. On second thought, maybe you should seek me out . . .)

Hyphenate all prefixes that precede a proper noun or a capitalized or initialized word (anti-AIDS, proto-Prussian moustache). Hyphenate most compounds using the word cross, as in cross-country, cross-gender, and cross-eyed (but not, and you might want to keep these in your cross-hairs, crossbred, crosshatched, and cross section).

Finally (for this section, anyway—but we do have a treat coming up!), when modifying phrases contain both complexity and prefixes or suffixes (perhaps they should be illegal, but thus far they're not), a dazzling combination of en-dashes and hyphens will amaze all your friends: nonself-recognizing
a oncezombie-like philistine

top Rules, in general
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
Hyphen Family

Hyphenation Exceptions

At last, as promised—Dessert! A section about when you need not hyphenate. In fact, about when you'd best not.


What would rules be without exceptions to exceptions?

Hyphens do not always appear between words that modify another word. For all you hyphen-haters (not that you would likely be among us at this point anyway), here is an example of two noun-modifying words that should not be hyphenated: crude plant extracts Why ever not? How does this three-word example differ from others you've seen?

Look at it this way. Which word is crude modifying? Crude is modifying extracts; it is not modifying plant. It is not a crude plant, in other words. Crude-plant extracts come from crude plants (however they may manifest; impolitely, perhaps?). And crude plant extracts are crude extracts from plants. Make sense?

Same with viral liver diseases and alcoholic liver diseases. It is a viral disease and an alcoholic disease; it is not a viral liver (although under those circumstances it may indeed harbor its share).

Another way to look at this is to prepare to hyphenate two-word modifiers when the first word complements, enhances, or contradicts (as in opposites: a corporate-environmental advocate—certainly a contradiction there!) the second. Thus, you do not hyphenate two-word modifiers when the first word modifies the third: chronic liver disease—the disease is what's chronic, not the liver

You've come so far.

Now, wrap your head around this:

Hyphenate adjectival compounds made with quasi- (as in quasi-legislative office and quasi-judicial body), but do not hyphenate noun compounds made with quasi [note—no hyphen!] (quasi expert but not Quasimodo, which is the first Sunday after Easter (low Sunday)). Is all this making you quasi nauseated, or are you simply having a quasi-nauseated moment?

Here's a Do-Not-Hyphenate Rule for you: Do not hyphenate standard terms.

That is, when they stand alone.
[Sentence-fragment alert!]

Which begs the question: How to tell which terms are standard?

Certain word combinations come to be instantly recognizable entities unto themselves: fast food
integrative medicine
high school
emergency room
natural products
public health
whole food

Behold: Nary a hyphen.

One easy way to think determine whether or not such terms have become "recognizable entities" is to put an indefinite article in front of them and see if they remain standing—a high school, an emergency room, the natural product—they make sense, no?

These you would not hyphenate.

But there's a catch.

It's really not a catch. Two-word combinations modifying nouns are hyphenated.

I'll say it again. Two-word combinations, standard or not, when modifying a third word, are hyphenated.

This—modifying—is something that they do often, and, when they do, because the first word modifies the second word, which modifies the noun, you hyphenate: a fast-food restaurant
an emergency-room gadfly
the whole-food diet

This is not a big deal, the distinction between standard and nonstandard terms, unless you happen to be a medical writer. But, if you wish to, you can think of nonstandard in terms of what is not usually together as commonly accepted combinations (a starving-neocon artist [now there's an oxymoron], for instance, or perhaps a fundamentalist-feminist bot), and you do hyphenate those.

Have you ever heard of a starving neocon or a fundamentalist feminist? No?

Then they must not be those standard terms, like a high school or an emergency room, off standing on their own.

Decisions along these lines—when and whither to hyphenate—can seem distressingly arbitrary. This is why I have departed from some of the accumulated wisdom to make these rules more consistent.

And there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about hyphens, and certainly more than you could have ever asked for dessert!

Up for more grammar? It does come with examples . . . You never know, but rumor has it that they could get juicy . . .

Sure you have a headache!

Rules, in general
Compound words
Pre- and post-ixes
Hyphenation exceptions
Hyphen Family

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