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The Humble Hyphen
2005, Q2 (September 03, 2013)
By Andrea Wenger

Andrea Wenger
Andrea Wenger

The hyphen may be the most overworked, under-appreciated punctuation mark in the English language. It’s used when superfluous, used when another form is more appropriate, and omitted altogether when needed most. Could it be that writers don’t love the hyphen—that we don’t revel in its power and hunger for its clarity? Perhaps. But often, we just don’t know any better. The hyphen serves a single function. It joins things together: syllables of a word separated at the end of a line; two words used as a compound; or a modifier and the word it describes (when the combination itself is used as a modifier). But for the latter two functions, a hyphen isn’t always needed. So how do you decide?

Hyphen use in compounds is often discretionary. If the compound word isn’t in the dictionary (you did check the dictionary, right?), then you must decide whether to hyphenate, to use a closed compound (one word), or to use an open compound (two words). The current trend is toward closed compounds (in those cases where clarity is not compromised). But don’t re-invent the wheel. Where possible, follow the usage in your company or industry. If the catalog calls it a push button, and the product label calls it a push button, don’t call it a push-button in the instruction sheet. (Yes, I know that the dictionary doesn’t hyphenate re-invent. But reinvent looks like a combination of two other English words—rein and vent—so I hyphenate it for clarity.)

When it comes to joining modifiers and the words they describe, the rules are more concrete. Generally, hyphens are not used between adverbs and adjectives. In the phrase, the broadly built bull, “broadly” cannot modify “bull,” it can only modify “built.” So no hyphen is needed.

But some words pull double duty as adverbs and adjectives. In the phrase, fast declining cheetah, does "fast" refer to the animal’s legendary speed, or to the speed of its decline? "Fast-declining cheetah" settles the matter.

Unpacking noun stacks is the hyphen’s greatest strength. Most folks in my industry know what a single pole double throw contact is. But isn’t that easier to read if I call it a single-pole, double-throw contact? When using noun stacks (and we all do), hyphenate modifiers and the words they modify to remove ambiguity. High resolution product family photos may leave the reader scratching his head. (Which is high-resolution—the product or the photos? Are we talking about a family of photos, or a family of products?). High-resolution, product-family photos alleviates confusion.

Chaos to clarity—that’s the power of punctuation.

Em Dashes

The hyphen is not an em dash — it cannot serve in place of a comma, semi-colon, or period. Em dashes are unique in the punctuation world — they both join and separate. They break ideas apart, so that the reader knows where one stops and another begins, while at the same time keeping ideas flowing. Em dashes are dynamic, but semi-colons static. A semi-colon stops the reader; an em dash propels her forward.

Em dashes provide greater separation than commas but less than parentheses. When sentences are long, and ideas closely related, an em dash — or a pair of them — may be the perfect solution.

En Dashes

That other dash — the en dash — is a source of confusion in the punctuation world. Folks might have an easier time keeping their hyphens and em dashes straight, if this in-between fellow didn’t muck them up. When should you use an en dash? Almost never.

It’s less punctuation than shorthand. It substitutes for the word “to” when expressing a range: Torque the screws to 12 — 15 lb-in.

To avoid confusion, an en dash is used in place of a hyphen when joining open compounds (post–Civil War era) or hyphenated compounds (push-button–selector-switch options) serving as adjectives. But if the meaning is clear without the en dash, stick with the hyphen (non-plug-in connector).

Do you love the hyphen yet? Maybe not. But I hope that you regard it as an ally, not an obstacle.

Andrea Wenger can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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