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A Word, Please: There's no catch-all guide to hyphens

February 04, 2012

If you’ve ever watched a man eating lobster, a number of things might have run through your mind — anything from “that looks delicious” to “thank heavens they gave that guy a bib” to “they should have given him a poncho.”

But it probably never occurred to you just how close you were to mortal danger — how just the finest of fine lines was the only thing standing between you and a homicidal monster.

Yet as you stood watching the man eating lobster, you were just one little hyphen away from a man-eating lobster.

Hyphens can make a huge difference in your meaning. But, truth be told, those situations are rare. Often hyphens are optional. Yet they’re still difficult. The rules are hard to decipher. Worse, no two editors hyphenate alike. So a reader trying to learn by example can end up extremely confused.

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Do you water ski or water-ski? Why might you see a hyphen in “a well-paid worker” while there’s none in “a poorly paid worker”? And how do you know whether you should write “officewide” or “office-wide”?

Many people figure there must be some simple hyphenation rule that clears up all these mysteries. But if you set out to learn more, you soon discover the truth. The rules seem a mess, and most of the books that cover hyphenation can still leave you utterly baffled on whether it’s “role-playing” or “role playing,” “pop-over” or “popover.”

Luckily, perfection isn’t the goal. Even professionals regularly have to look these things up. So anyone who wants to hyphenate well, but not perfectly, can just follow some simple guidelines.

Think of hyphenation in three categories: compound modifiers, nouns and verbs, and prefixes and suffixes.

Compound modifiers are basically adjectives you create from two or more words: a grape-eating man, a side-view mirror, a best-of-all-worlds scenario. These follow a simple rule with a simple exception. The rule: Hyphenate compound modifiers whenever doing so can help prevent ambiguity.

Our man-eating lobster is the classic example. The exception: Don’t hyphenate if your compound contains an “ly” adverb: “The hastily decorated car bore a just-married sign.”

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