General Question

tinyfaery's avatar

How do I determine what words are hyphenated?

Asked by tinyfaery (36007 points ) July 22nd, 2008

It seems that more and more words are hyphenated these days. Is there a grammatical rule that fits the common usage of the hyphen. What to do…

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30 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Well, the plethora of hyphenated words today can be attributed to people running roughshod over the language.

A hyphenated word accepted as such, for example, sit-up, is in the dictionary that way.

Grammatically, you should hyphenate compound adjectives: a ten-year-old boy, for example.

Tone's avatar

Generally it’s best to look at a recent dictionary, as compound ideas tend to evolve from being two words, to hyphenated words, and then sometimes to being a single word.

This site has some general rules, though.

I disagree with Marina in that hyphenated words are often new concepts and not a mangling of the language but an evolution. Examples: e-mail (now often written as email), data-base (always written as database now), and so on.

The beauty of English is that it’s so flexible and accommodates new ideas and words very easily.

marinelife's avatar

@Tone I don’t think we disagree. I think you bring up a legitimate instance of the base of the hypen and genuine language migration of compound nouns. Some more examples: wire-less and down-stairs. I gave you lurve.

I do think people twist the language when it is not necessary though.

PupnTaco's avatar

Pick up a style guide. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, but there are several good paperback style guides.

gooch's avatar

This amswer will best be aswered by Gail.

tinyfaery's avatar

Holy f*&%#! That’s too much to remember. Disclaimer: from now on, if I use a hyphen, and you find it an inappropriate usage, I’m sorry. Please don’t dig me for my bad grammar.

gailcalled's avatar

I am forced to quote from the OED site: welter in the prevailing chaos. I wish I had thought of that.

“Hyphenation in English is highly variable, and in many contexts, it really doesn’t matter. The Fowler brothers, first editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, wrote in their preface to the 1911 edition:

We have also to admit that after trying hard at an early stage to arrive at some principle that should teach us when to separate, when to hyphen, and when to unite the parts of compound words, we had to abandon the attempt as hopeless, and welter in the prevailing chaos.

tinyfaery's avatar

Thank you gail. I will never feel ignorant about it again.

PupnTaco's avatar

Also to avoid ambiguity – as in “high-jumping athletes.” Without (“high jumping athletes”), it could be read as “athletes who jump high” or “jumping athletes who are high.”

gailcalled's avatar

Dave makes a good point. I use hyphens only to clarify, (but I use them).

Two other examples (stolen from the Oxford English site)

Twenty-odd people and twenty odd people, or a third-world conflict and a third world conflict;

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Gail, the fact that you just quoted the OED, AND refered to it as the OED, just made you a superstar in my book. My friends think I am a HUGE dork when i say, “Guess what I found out when I was browsing the OED?” (which kind of happens a lot)

To answer the question, from a linguistic point of view, language is continually changing. It is not changing now more than it has in the past. Hyphenation rules are still being worked out for individual words. The “good” side of this coin is you can’t really be faulted if you “mess up” because different people have different opinions. The “bad” side of this coin is that sometimes people think their opinions are better than yours (Arrogant of them, isn’t it?). Basically how a language gets developed is, the majority rules. Once a majority of the population has accepted a language phenomenon, such as “email” vs. “e-mail” (to steal the example from above). The only way to ensure that you’re following what’s most acceptable before it has been completely standardized, is to consult a style manual, such as the MLA style manual, the APA, or the University of Chicago manual. If the particular word or issue you’re wondering about does not appear in the manual you choose, don’t worry about it, and go with your best instinct. (wow, what a long answer to such a short question). oops?

gailcalled's avatar

@La chica: Maybe you need some new friends?

..email vs. e-mail doesn’t change the meaning or stop the reader in his tracks. Fun loving people might. Fun-loving people have more fun than non-fun-loving people….Or. Do you have fun loving people?

La_chica_gomela's avatar

Ah, that is a good point gail, but I pretty much consider them huge dorks too, so I guess it works out. ;-)

sarahsugs's avatar

One rule that I have found to have some consistency is the compound adjective situation mentioned by Marina above.

Example: I teach third-grade students vs. My students are in the third grade.

Example: That was a half-baked idea vs. That idea was half baked.

So…compound adjectives = hyphen.

gailcalled's avatar

@Sarah; If I read “That idea was half baked” too many times, I start to laugh. I’d probably use “half-baked idea” in both sentences because the modifier is so absurd.

“Third grade” works better because it is straightforward.

marinelife's avatar

Warbled: It took too long to bake it. Now we’ll never have that cake again. Oh, noooooooo!

Knotmyday's avatar

Are we referring to the often-sought-for-but-unfortunately-never-truly-attainable hard-and-fast grammatical rule for hyphenating?

O quantum est in rebus inane!

marinelife's avatar

@Kmd Beautifully said. Abusus non tollit usum.

gailcalled's avatar

morsus mihi!

tinyfaery's avatar

If you can read that, your over-educted. :)
Like that? Huh?

Knotmyday's avatar

Cedo maiori

marinelife's avatar

et ego Go Gail. P.S. Isn’t that, essentially, Latin slang?

tinyfaery's avatar

Don’t swear at me!!!! :)

gailcalled's avatar

I don’t think it is Latin anything.

Knotmyday's avatar

It’s as Latin as “Me transmitte sursum, Caledoni” Maybe Latin-er.
(Two more demerits, gratuitous hyphen-use. I mean…shucks)

Knotmyday's avatar

Homo sum!

I gotta stop, my ribs hurt.

gailcalled's avatar

Ego sum mulier. . Audite mihi rudo.

Zen's avatar

Gail et al have clarified it well. There isn’t one set of rules, but the best way to be safe is to consult a dictionary. If you are writing an exam, say, and don’t have time or inclination to consult a dictionary, there are two good rules of thumb which almost always apply.

The first is a rule-of-thumb, that in many (not all) instances, the words have evolved from two words (out and side), to a new idea (outside) sometimes by way of hyphenation. Sometimes going straight to word, without. Again, in many cases, not all.

The second rule is to use hyphens when needed for clarity. The hyphen is needed, for instance, to distinguish re-sign from resign or re-creation from recreation. It also helps to differentiate a dirty-movie theater from a dirty movie-theater.

:-)

kritiper's avatar

I have a book that tells you. “20,000 WORDS Spelled, Divided, and Accented for the use of stenographers, students, authors, and proofreaders Compiled by Louis A. Leslie, C. S. R. Second Edition, Revised THE GREGG PUBLISHING COMPANY New York Chicago Boston San Francisco Toronto London”

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