SKRoberts (skroberts) wrote in fandom_grammar,

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Answer: What is the appropriate use for hyphenation?

...with examples from The Colbert Report, Angel, and Stargate Atlantis...

Question: What is the appropriate use for hyphenation?

VIDEO: The Colbert Report (March 3, 2008)
Please watch minute 1:10 to 1:30 of the above clip.

You can see in The Colbert Report clip that a tiny punctuation mark can make all the difference in your understanding of a headline. That tiny punctuation mark is called a hyphen.

A hyphen ( - ) is most commonly used to link two or more words that function as a single word, or to divide a word at the end of line. Hyphens are often confused with dashes ( —, ― ), which are longer and have different functions. The use of hyphens is called hyphenation.

There is not a complete list of hyphenation rules because hyphen usage is largely related to context. But there are some rules you should follow. As always, you should consult the style manual or dictionary of your choice for the country in which you are writing.

Compound Modifiers

Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that equally modify the meaning of another word. Generally, you need to hyphenate between such words to make them act as a single idea. The use of a hyphen will show that the words that are attached do not make up a complete word by themselves. Use hyphens liberally in compound modifiers as they are often vital to comprehension:

Nazi Treasure-Hunter
Nazi-Treasure Hunter

Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether Nazi applies to treasure or hunter. While both examples use hyphenation appropriately, they have very different meanings:

A Nazi Treasure-Hunter is a Nazi that hunts for treasure.
A Nazi-Treasure Hunter is a hunter of treasure that belongs to Nazis.

When a compound modifier appears before a term, the compound modifier is generally hyphenated to prevent any possible misunderstanding, such as the one in the video example. However, when those same modifying words come after the noun, they are not hyphenated.

Nazi-Treasure Hunter Stephen Colbert doesn't want you to touch his booty.
Stephen Colbert claims to be a hunter of Nazi treasure.

Here is an easy rule: if you can put the word and between the modifiers, and it makes sense, it is not a compound modifier.

Names and Numbers

1. When modifying a person with his or her age, the compounded phrase is hyphenated:

Angel is a 277-year-old vampire with a soul.

However, when the age comes after the person, don't use a hyphen:

The vampire with a soul is 277 years old.

The specific reason why you hyphenate 277-year-old vampire and not is 277 years old is because 277-year-old is acting as an adjective, while it's an object in the second sentence.

2. The hyphen is regularly used in writing names with two parts, or so-called "double-barrelled" names:

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce

However, some individuals with such names don't use the hyphen, so you should always respect the usage of the owner of the name.

3. A hyphen may be used to connect groups of numbers:

11-12-1955 (date: November 12, 1955)
867-5309 (telephone number)
17-14 (sports score)

Prefixes and Suffixes

In general, don't use hyphens after prefixes or before suffixes. However, there are some exceptions:

1. Use a hyphen when in compounds in which the second element is capitalized or a number:


2. Some prefixed words are hyphenated to distinguish them from other words that would otherwise be homographs, or words that share the same spelling but have different meanings:

recreation (fun or sport) vs. re creation (the act of creating again)
predate (what a predator does) vs. pre date (to be of an earlier calendar date).

3. Hyphens may be used when repeated vowels or consonants are pronounced separately rather than being silent or merged into another sound:


4. Use hyphens in compounds that would be difficult to read otherwise:


Justification and Line-Wrapping

Words may be divided to allow for such things as more efficient usage of paper and a cleaner appearance of right-side margins without requiring spacing adjustments. These words should be divided at the nearest breakpoint between syllables, and a hyphen should be inserted to indicate that the letters form a word fragment rather than a whole word.

Without hyphenationWith hyphenation
We, therefore, the
representatives of the United
States of America...
We, therefore, the represen-
tatives of the United States
of America...

If you plan on publishing your written work in a digital form, you may not have need of this use of hyphenation, but it is worth noting if you plan for your work to be printed.

If you must divide a word at the end of a line, use a hyphen to separate between syllables. However, not every division between syllables is an appropriate place for dividing a word. Consult a dictionary or style manual for guidelines.


1. Hyphens are occasionally used to denote syllabification, the separation of a word into syllables:


2. Similarly, hyphens may be used to imply the spelling of a word:

A-N-C-I-E-N-T spells ancient.
C-H-E-E-S-E spells cheese.

To answer the question, appropriate hyphenation depends greatly on context. Honestly, the best way to make sure you're getting it right is to refer to a good dictionary.

The Blue Book: Hyphens
The Grammar Curmudgeon: "Hyphenated Words: A Guide"
Guide to Grammar and Writing
Guide to Punctuation: The Hyphen
Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, Fifteenth Edition (Cheryl Glenn, Robert Keith Miller, and Suzanne Strobeck Webb)
MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition (Joseph Gibaldi)
The Tongue United: The Hyphen
Tags: !answer, author:skroberts, punctuation, punctuation:hyphen

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