Posted by Samuel Birnie
1 May, 2018

The world of hyphenation is often confusing and even seasoned writers and editors slip up sometimes. It helps to know the purpose of the hyphen as well as the rules, so you can make a decision in uncertain situations.

Here at Nixon, the design team likes to have a little chuckle over my love for hyphenation. But it is important. In this post I’ll cover the basic rules for this often overlooked piece of punctuation.

What is it good for?

The main purpose of the hyphen is to avoid ambiguity by connecting language – think of it as a little piece of string that ties words together. It lets the reader know how to understand the text when the meaning would otherwise be unclear.

As with language in general, the rules are always changing and we’re currently in a state of transition. Hence ‘preemptive’ and ‘pre-emptive’ are both acceptable spellings of the same word, though in modern usage most lean towards as little hyphenation as possible. In these situations it’s up to you – just make sure you’re consistent.

A text card with a monkey illustration.

This is where having a house style comes in handy. And you may want to consider your tone of voice: if you’re an ahead-of-the-curve kind of brand, you might want to ditch the hyphen most of the time; if you’re a traditional brand aimed at an older audience, you may want to stick to the original hyphenated spellings of some words.

Starting at the beginning

Let’s start with prefixes – those little bits you can attach to the beginnings of words to modify their meaning, such as changing ‘industrial’ to ‘pre-industrial’ or ‘anti-industrial’. A lot of the time you can squish these together, and this squishing together is constantly creating new words. Again, it’s best to set out your preferences in your style guide, and, if in doubt, check the dictionary.

A text card with a moose illustration.

You’ll usually want to tie a hyphen to the prefixes ‘ex’ and ‘self’, as in ‘ex-president’ or ‘self-satisfied’, and when there’s a double ‘i’, as in the ‘anti-industrial’ example above. And it’s best to use a hyphen if leaving one out creates confusion, for example to differentiate between a ‘co-op’ and a ‘coop’. Finally, always use a hyphen when joining a prefix to a word with a capital letter, e.g. ‘pre-Christian’ or ‘pro-European’.

Compounds confound

Most other mix-ups in hyphenation happen around compounds – which is what it’s called when you tie two or more existing words together to create a combination word (like ‘mix-ups’). There are all sorts of technical terms for these bad boys but let’s put them to one side and look at practical examples.

A big-wheeled tractor

If you’re using multiple words in combination to describe something that directly follows, you need to stitch these words together with hyphens. Leave the hyphens out and it changes the meaning. So, a ‘big-wheeled tractor’ is a tractor with big wheels, whereas a ‘big wheeled tractor’ is a big tractor that has wheels. In the first phrase the hyphen binds the two words into a single compound that describes the tractor – it is big-wheeled. In the second, each word acts alone – it is big and it is wheeled.

This is the same for almost everything: ‘an up-to-date report’, ‘a hard-won victory’ and ‘a black-tie dinner’. And you only need to hyphenate when the describing words come directly before the thing they’re describing, so an ‘up-to-date report’ is a report that’s up to date.

A text card with a warthog illustration.

Call me old-fashioned

One exception is with phrases such as ‘old-fashioned’, ‘cold-blooded’, ‘light-headed’ and ‘bleary-eyed’ – in other words, compounds that end in ‘-ed’. These greedy lot almost always want a hyphen, even when they come after the thing they’re describing. This is because the second words – ‘fashioned’, ‘blooded’, ‘headed’ and ‘eyed’ – only really work as descriptors in combination with something else. Be careful of verbs ending in ‘-ed’, though: a ‘well-poured pint’ is a pint that’s well poured; if the ‘-ed’ word can stand alone, let it.

Proper job

If you’re using a proper noun (i.e. an official name that’s capitalised) to describe something, such as ‘an Academy Award-winning film’ or ‘an AA Rosette restaurant’, you don’t need to hyphenate the words with capital letters. Remember that the job of the hyphen is to show that words are related, and the capital letters of an official name do this job fine on their own. You will, however, want to tie them to any additional words, as in ‘Academy Award-winning film’.

Curb your verbs

Ever heard of a phrasal verb? Well, you use them all the time. They’re basically phrases that are actions, such as ‘warm up’ and ‘drop off’. When you’re writing about the action you don’t need a hyphen, but if you’re using the phrase to describe something – a ‘warm-up exercise’, say, or a ‘drop-off point’ – you do need a hyphen. You’ll also want one if you’re using the phrase as a noun: so, when you go to the gym you should do a warm-up, and after Christmas you might see a drop-off in sales.

One more thing on verbs: if you’re using two words to make a verb, you’ll need to link them with a hyphen. For example, you put on ice skates to ice-skate and when you place booby traps around the entrance to your secret treasure trove you’re booby-trapping it.

A commonly made mistake

Notice there’s no hyphen in the subtitle for this section? That’s because you don’t hyphenate compounds in phrases such as ‘commonly made mistake’, ‘hastily placed punctuation’ or ‘fully fledged pilot’ (even though Word throws a wobbly [green line] with the last one). If the first word is an adverb (i.e. a word that describes an action) and ends in ‘-ly’ then put that hyphen back in its box, buddy.

A text card with a bird illustration.

Remember, the key function of the hyphen is to avoid confusion. With ‘-ly’ adverbs there is no confusion as the adverb can only describe the action that immediately follows. In our example – ‘commonly made mistake’ – ‘commonly’ can only describe ‘made’: ‘commonly mistake’ makes no sense. (Beware, however, of other words ending in ‘-ly’: if it’s not an adverb then it’s a big-wheeled tractor, e.g. a ‘family-friendly hotel’ is a hotel that’s family friendly.)

This extends to other adverbs that can’t be misinterpreted: for instance, in the introduction to this post I write ‘this often overlooked piece of punctuation’. You don’t need to hyphenate ‘often overlooked’ as ‘often’ can only describe ‘overlooked’. You only hyphenate adverbs if it’s uncertain what they’re describing: an author’s best-known novel and her best known novel aren’t necessarily the same book.

Is that a typo?

Clients often come back with what they think is an error – an errant hyphen blemishing phrases such as ‘a two- or three-night break’. But no, it’s not a typo. The hyphen’s there to show that ‘night’ is missing from the end of ‘two-’. Writing ‘a two or three-night break’ is technically wrong grammar-wise. The alternative is writing the phrase out in full – ‘a two-night or three-night break’ – but I find that the copy’s cleaner when you leave out the repeated element and just use the hyphen.

A text card with a koala illustration.

​One last one

When writing the numbers 21 to 99 in full, they’ll need to be hyphenated: twenty-one, ninety-nine, and one hundred and sixty-two.

So those are the basic rules. You might not remember all of them but the main thing is this: hyphens are there to make meaning clearer by showing that words are connected. Keep that in mind and set out your brand style and you can’t go far wrong. Happy hyphenating.

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