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How to use hyphens

How to use hyphens

Man-eating chicken to take away, anyone?

My local branch of a peri-peri chicken restaurant chain has been displaying this inscription on a blackboard for a while now:

Man eating chicken!

It’s an amusing illustration of how hyphens or their omission can completely change the meaning of a piece of writing. If, like me, you have a slightly offbeat sense of humour, an incongruous image of a monstrous hen, red in tooth and claw, may briefly flit through your mind, as was the writer’s intention. This is because you make a mental connection with such familiar hyphenated compounds as man-eating tiger. But this statement is deliberately unhyphenated, meaning that it should be read as a simple subject-verb-object sentence (rather than man-eating chicken, which reads as a noun preceded by a compound adjective): so, a man is eating some chicken, don’t hold the front page!

Secondly, I’m enjoying a book by the double-barrelled historian Robin Lane Fox. Somewhat paradoxically (since Lane Fox prefers his moniker to be written without a hyphen), the house style of his publisher is hyphen-crazy. Their diligent hyphenation of noun compounds looks rather outdated to me: for instance, love-poem, sea-battle, power-base, army-camp, and city-state would all be perfectly easy to understand if written as separate words. However, the book is a masterpiece of copyediting: this rule is applied completely consistently throughout, which is what matters.


There are certainly some situations in which hyphens are optional  (double-barrelling of surnames, for instance), but they lend meaning and clarity to writing in others.

In modern English in general, the use of hyphens is decreasing, especially with regard to compound nouns. While hyphenation of such words was widespread several decades ago, nowadays these nouns either tend to be written as one word:

  • playground
  • headdress
  • riverbank
  • seafood

or as two separate words:

  • house plant
  • dog collar
  • road bike
  • web page

However, hyphens seem to be beloved of English-language sticklers*. Oxford University Press hit the global headlines in 2007, when the 6th edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was published. Shock, horror – 16,000 words had lost their hyphens! Was this really a case of ‘punctuational genocide’? Some scandalized commentators seemed to think so.

Let’s just step back from the hyperbole: how do dictionary-makers decide whether noun compounds should be hyphenated or not? It’s not an arbitrary choice: for our current English dictionaries, such as the free one on this website, Oxford’s lexicographers assiduously check the evidence of billions of words of today’s English on a huge database, the Oxford English Corpus. If they see that in the vast majority of cases, a noun such as ice cream is written as an unhyphenated two-word form, then this is the spelling they will select to appear in the dictionary.

Especially for the sticklers …

Why are hyphens useful or necessary in some circumstances? Take a look at the following sentences:

He was a great uncle and we all loved his Christmas parties.

He had a great-uncle who was in the Army too.

The first sentence means that the speaker thought very highly of his or her own uncle, whereas the second example means that the uncle of the speaker’s father or mother was in the Army. The hyphen makes all the difference to the meaning.

Here’s another good example: would long-suffering rail travellers jump for joy at the thought of yet more trains that are not running to time?

There will be extra trains to and from Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, including more late night trains from London.

They may, however, have been more pleased to read this judiciously hyphenated version that promises the provision of more trains late at night, which is probably the writer’s intended meaning:

There will be extra trains to and from Leeds, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, including more late-night trains from London.

*Don’t* dash-off!

Unlike the person who coined the ‘man eating chicken’ caption above (who clearly knew their stuff), many writers are unsure as to when to hyphenate, and sprinkle the poor little line around willy-nilly. The following sentences are prime examples of mis-hyphenation:

X We’ll arrive at our hotel late afternoon with time to settle-in to the hotel and freshen-up before dinner.

X  It is still not known what causes fat to build-up in the liver.

The emboldened words above are known as phrasal verbs. We’re increasingly seeing hyphens being added to connect these types of verbs to their adverbs or prepositions, in spite of the fact that this is a grammatical no-no! The correct versions of the sentences should be unhyphenated:

√ We’ll arrive at our hotel late afternoon with time to settle in to the hotel and freshen up before dinner.

√ It is still not known what causes fat to build up in the liver.

My theory is that writers are aware of the rule that nouns formed from phrasal verbs are hyphenated (e.g. a build-up of gas), so they tend to think that the verbs themselves should be too. If you’re unsure, a good tip in this situation is to think about the function of the word in the sentence, and hyphenate it (or not) according to whether it’s a verb or a noun:

√ It is still not known what causes fat to build up in the liver.                      [verb]

√ This disorder is characterized by a build-up of fat in liver cells.               [noun]

Honing your hyphenation

So now I’ve given you a few pointers on how to use hyphens and why they matter, why not check out this section of OxfordDictionaries.com? It gives you a thorough grounding in all you need to know, and will help you to avoid writing about twenty odd people who came to your party (and wondering why they don’t return your calls).

*Did you see what I did then? English language sticklers (no hyphen) would be language sticklers who were English, whereas English-language sticklers (hyphen) could be people of any nationality who take a traditional approach towards the English language: a perfect example of how a hyphen can change the meaning of a phrase.

PS: I love collecting examples in which the lack of a hyphen causes unintended chuckles – why don’t you post some of your favourites in the Comments section below, so that we can all enjoy them?

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