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Hyphens, Hyphens, & Hyphens

You love 'em. I love 'em. They're hyphens and they're pretty dang useful. I'm gonna run over some quick uses for our favourite little short dashing punctuation mark.

Hyphens (-)

These little marks that find themselves littered throughout novels new and old, are very useful, albeit tricky, little dashes. They’re smaller than an en or em dash and help join words.

Firstly, hyphens have a strict purpose and are not interchangeable with other dashes! (Except in that weird example of the en dash where it hyphenates hyphenated words.)

Secondly, hyphens join words together before the word they modify.

And thirdly, if you ever have any doubts, consult a dictionary! For me, I always check the Oxford American and the Oxford British dictionary, which tends to favour hyphens (so I've noticed).

Anyway, this is meant to be a quick little guide to hyphens. If you want something more in depth, I recommend Grammar Girl.

For the first example, let’s keep it simple with a basic word combo like the term “load bearing” for walls.

Example: Don’t take down any load-bearing walls.

Example: This wall is load bearing. Don’t take it down.

You don’t have to use a hyphen for adverbs before adjectives or words like least or most.

Incorrect: That’s a clearly-impossible feat of strength.

Correct: That’s a clearly impossible feat of strength.

Incorrect: That’s my least-favourite thing.

Correct: That’s my least favourite thing.

In the following example, it shows the difference between modifying “looking garden” and “garden.” See the difference?

Example: This is a pretty looking garden.

Example: This is a pretty-looking garden.

There are also some compound words that use hyphens in them.

Examples: Mother-in-law, ten-year-old, make-up.

Some words, like “make-up,” can also omit the hyphen, depending on the style guide or editor. Other words like “mother-in-law” will always have the hyphen.

There is also a trend of closing up hyphenated words. E-mail became email. E-book became ebook. Most words ending with “up” (check-up, make-up, back-up, etc.) are becoming hyphen-less. (You also use a hyphen like that, to add a non-standard prefix or suffix to a word.)

When numbers are spelled out, they use a hyphen as well.

Example: Twenty-one.

Example: Three hundred and ninety-three.

They are also used with numbers like this:

Example: You’re scheduled for a 30-minute massage.

But there is no hyphen for compound adjectives.

Incorrect: Tony has Type-2 diabetes.

Correct: Tony has Type 2 diabetes.

Hyphenate fractions when they’re modifying a word so your reader will know it’s being modified. Of course.

Example: One-third, two-fifths, and quarter-million.

Example: I half-expected you to scare me!

Always hyphenate “self” and “ex.” And sometimes “all” (but only when use as a prefix.)

Example: She’s my ex-girlfriend.

Example: That’s his ex-wife.

Example: Stop self-doubting! Write your novel already.

Example: Many people struggle with self-esteem.

Example: He had too much strength and saw himself as all-powerful.

Novel Usage

In prose, hyphens will appear in mostly in every novel because novels are justified text (meaning flush with both margins), so to do this, the manuscript must hyphenate longer words to avoid the text being unreasonably spaced out. Therefore, hyphens often appear at the end of lines of within printed novels.


So, what do you think?

Comment your thoughts!

Follow me on Twitter: @coda_cola_

Have a good wander, friend.

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