A Word, Please: There's no catch-all guide to hyphens

Editor's note: June Casagrande's column on language and usage ran in the Daily Pilot until 2005. We're pleased to welcome her back. Her column will run Saturdays.


If you've ever watched a man eating lobster, a number of things might have run through your mind — anything from "that looks delicious" to "thank heavens they gave that guy a bib" to "they should have given him a poncho."

But it probably never occurred to you just how close you were to mortal danger — how just the finest of fine lines was the only thing standing between you and a homicidal monster.

Yet as you stood watching the man eating lobster, you were just one little hyphen away from a man-eating lobster.

Hyphens can make a huge difference in your meaning. But, truth be told, those situations are rare. Often hyphens are optional. Yet they're still difficult. The rules are hard to decipher. Worse, no two editors hyphenate alike. So a reader trying to learn by example can end up extremely confused.

Do you water ski or water-ski? Why might you see a hyphen in "a well-paid worker" while there's none in "a poorly paid worker"? And how do you know whether you should write "office wide" or "office-wide"?

Many people figure there must be some simple hyphenation rule that clears up all these mysteries. But if you set out to learn more, you soon discover the truth. The rules seem a mess, and most of the books that cover hyphenation can still leave you utterly baffled on whether it's "role-playing" or "role playing," "pop-over" or "popover."

Luckily, perfection isn't the goal. Even professionals regularly have to look these things up. So anyone who wants to hyphenate well, but not perfectly, can just follow some simple guidelines.

Think of hyphenation in three categories: compound modifiers, nouns and verbs, and prefixes and suffixes.

Compound modifiers are basically adjectives you create from two or more words: a grape-eating man, a side-view mirror, a best-of-all-worlds scenario. These follow a simple rule with a simple exception. The rule: Hyphenate compound modifiers whenever doing so can help prevent ambiguity.

Our man-eating lobster is the classic example. The exception: Don't hyphenate if your compound contains an "ly" adverb: "The hastily decorated car bore a just-married sign."

For nouns and verbs, there's no formula. Either a hyphen is included in a word's official spelling or it's not. The only way to know is to look it up: pop-over, role-playing and the verb water-ski are among the words "Webster's New World College Dictionary" spells with a hyphen.

But when you look something up, note the part of speech. You may notice that noun and verb forms of the same word may be different. For example, according to Webster's, a water-skier water-skis on water skis.

Style guides say not to hyphenate most prefixes, then they list countless exceptions. Unless you need to get them publisher-perfect, follow this simple rule: Don't use a hyphen unless the word looks weird to you without one.

For example, anti-American is clearly better than anti American, just as semi-industrial is clearly better than semi industrial.

Suffixes usually are not hyphenated. So they're easy. But be warned: Some terms can be either a word or a suffix.

For example, open your dictionary and you'll see a listing for the word "wide." But just under that, an entry with a hyphen in front — "-wide" — indicates that it's also a suffix. So it makes more sense to use the suffix and write "office wide" than to assemble two words to make your own compound "office-wide."

And yes, hyphens go in spelled-out numbers such as forty-two, sixty-seven and ninety-nine — any number less than a hundred that contains two words.

Those simple guidelines are all you need to keep straight your man eating lobster and your man-eating lobster.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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