Rules for using hyphens

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There have been a number of recent questions concerning when to use hypens. The following is an excerpt from The Economist magazine's style guide.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2004

Use hyphens for:

1. FRACTIONS (whether nouns or adjectives): two-thirds, four-fifths, one-sixth, etc.

2. MOST WORDS THAT BEGIN with anti, non and neo. Thus anti-aircraft, anti-fascist, anti-submarine (but antibiotic, anticlimax, antidote, antiseptic, antitrust); non-combatant, non-existent, non-payment, non-violent (but nonaligned, nonconformist, nonplussed, nonstop); neo-conservative, neo-liberal (but neoclassicism, neolithic, neologism).

Words beginning Euro should also be hyphenated, except Europhile, Europhobe and Eurosceptic; euro zone and euro area.

Some words that become unmanageably long with the addition of a prefix. Thus under-secretary and inter-governmental. Antidisestablishmentarianism would, however, lose its point if it were hyphenated.

A sum followed by the word worth also needs a hyphen. Thus $25m-worth of goods.

3. SOME TITLES

vice-president, director-general, under-secretary, secretary-general, attorney-general, lieutenant-colonel, major-general, field-marshal

but

general secretary, deputy secretary, deputy director, district attorney

4. TO AVOID AMBIGUITIES

a little-used car
a little used-car
cross complaint
cross-complaint
high-school girl
high schoolgirl
fine-tooth comb (most people do not comb their teeth)
third-world war
third world war

5. AIRCRAFT

DC-10, Mirage F-1E, MiG-23, Lockheed P-3 Orion
(If in doubt, consult Jane's "All the World's Aircraft".)

6. ADJECTIVES FORMED FROM TWO OR MORE WORDS

right-wing groups (but the right wing of the party), balance-of-payments difficulties, private-sector wages, public-sector borrowing requirement, a 70-year-old judge, state-of-the-union message, value-added tax (VAT).

Adverbs do not need to be linked to participles or adjectives by hyphens in simple constructions: The regiment was ill equipped for its task; The principle is well established; Though expensively educated, the journalist knew no grammar. But if the adverb is one of two words together being used adjectivally, a hyphen may be needed: The ill-equipped regiment was soon repulsed; All well-established principles should be periodically challenged. The hyphen is especially likely to be needed if the adverb is short and common, such as ill, little, much and well. Less-common adverbs, including all those that end -ly, are less likely to need hyphens: Never employ an expensively educated journalist.

Do not overdo the literary device of hyphenating words that are not usually linked: the stringing-together-of-lots-and-lots-of-words-and-ideas tendency can be tiresome.

7. SEPARATING IDENTICAL LETTERS:

book-keeping (but bookseller), coat-tails, co-operate, unco-operative, pre-eminent, pre-empt (but predate, precondition), re-emerge, re-entry (but rearm, rearrange, reborn, repurchase), trans-ship. Exceptions include override, overrule, underrate, withhold.

8. NOUNS FORMED FROM PREPOSITIONAL VERBS:

bail-out, build-up, call-up, get-together, lay-off, pay-off, round-up, set-up, shake-up, etc.

9. THE QUARTERS OF THE COMPASS:

north-east(ern), south-east(ern), south-west(ern), north-west(ern), the mid-west(ern).

10. HYBRID ETHNICS:

Greek-Cypriot, Irish-American, etc, whether noun or adjective.

Words gathered together in quotation marks to serve as adjectives do not usually need hyphens as well: the "Live Free or Die" state.

----------------

A general rule for makers: if the prefix is of one or two syllables, attach it without a hyphen to form a single word, but if the prefix is of three or more syllables, introduce a hyphen. So carmaker, chipmaker, peacemaker, marketmaker, troublemaker, but candlestick-maker, holiday-maker, tiramisu-maker, antimacassar-maker. Policymaker (one word) is an exception.

With other words ending -er that are similar to maker (builder, dealer, driver, grower, owner, player, runner, seeker, traf***er, worker, etc) the general rule should be to insert a hyphen. But some prefixes, especially those of one syllable, can be used to form single words (coalminer, foxhunter, householder, landowner, metalworker, muckraker, nitpicker, shipbroker, steeplechaser), and some combinations will be better left as two words (insurance broker, crossword compiler, tuba player).

ONE WORD:
airfield
airspace
airtime
antibiotic
anticlimax
antidoteantiseptic
antitrust
bedfellow
bestselling
bilingual
blackboard
blueprint
bookmaker
businessman
bypass
carmaker
cashflow
ceasefire
chipmaker
clockmaker
coalminer
coastguard
codebreaker
comeback
commonsense (adj)
cyberspace
dotcom
fallout
farmworker
figleaf
foothold
forever (adv, when it precedes the verb)
foxhunter (-ing)
goodwill
halfhearted
handout
handpicked
hardline
headache
hijack
hobnob
kowtow
lacklustre
landmine
landowner
laptop
loophole
lopsided
lukewarm
machinegun
marketmaker (-ing)
metalworker
minefield
multilingual
nationwide
nevertheless
nitpicker (-ing)
nonetheless
offline
offshore
oilfield
online
onshore
overpaid
overrated
override
overrule
overrun
payout
peacekeepers (-ing)
peacemaker (-ing)
peacetime
petrochemical
placename
policymakers(-ing), but foreign-policy makers (-ing)
profitmaking
rainforest
roadblock
rustbelt
salesforce
seabed
shipbroker (-ing)
shipbuilder (-ing)
shipowner
shortlist
shutdown
soyabean
spillover
statewide
steelmaker (-ing)
steelworker (-ing)
stockmarket
streetwalker
strongman
subcommittee
subcontinent
subcontract
subhuman
submachinegun
sunbelt
takeover
threshold
timetable
transatlantic
transpacific
troublemaker (-ing)
turnout
underdog
underpaid
underrated
videodisc
videocassette
wartime
website
windfall
workforce
worldwide
worthwhile

TWO WORDS:
ad hoc (always)
air base
air force
arm's length
any more
ballot box
birth rate
car maker
child care (noun)
common sense (noun)
dog owner
errand boy
for ever (when used after a verb)
girl friend
health care (noun)
Land Rover
no one
on to
some day
under way
vice versa

TWO HYPHENATED WORDS:
agri-business
aid-worker
aircraft-carrier
asylum-seekers
bail-out
bell-ringer
build-up
buy-out
call-up (noun)
catch-phrase
copper-miner
death-squads
drawing-board
drug-dealer (-ing)
drug-traf***er (-ing)
end-game
end-year
faint-hearted
field-worker
front-line
front-runner
fund-raiser (-ing)
get-together (noun)
gun owner
gun-runner
hand-held
health-care (adj)
heir-apparent
hot-head
ice-cream
infra-red
inter-governmental
interest-group
joint-venture
kerb-crawler
know-how
lay-off (noun)
like-minded
long-standing
machine-tool
mid-week, mid-August, etc
mill-owner
nation-building
nation-state
news-stand
pay-off (noun)
post-war
pot-hole
pressure-group
pre-war
pull-out (noun, not verb)
question-mark
rain-check
re-create (meaning create again)
re-present (meaning present again)
re-sort (meaning sort again)
round-up (noun)
set-up (noun)
shake-out (noun)
stand-off
starting-point
start-ups
sticking-point
stumbling-block
talking-shop
task-force
tear-gas
think-tank
time-bomb
truck-driver
turning-point
vote-winner
working-party

THREE WORDS:
ad hoc agreement (meeting, etc)
armoured personnel carrier
chiefs of staff
half a dozen
in as much
in so far
multiple rocket launcher
nuclear power station
third world war (if things get bad)

THREE HYPHENATED WORDS:
A-turned-B (thief-turned-journalist)
brother-in-law
chock-a-block
commander-in-chief
no-man's-land
prisoners-of-war
second-in-command

Avoid from 1947-50 (say in 1947-50 or from 1947 to 1950) and between 1961-65 (say in 1961-65, between 1961 and 1965 or from 1961 to 1965).

“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad” (Oxford University Press style manual).
Full Member287
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Dave

You have done good job. A very informative details!
Full Member387
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Great article, Dave!
Thank you for posting it.
I've already printed it. Emotion: smile
Regular Member826
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Miriam,

Keep in mind that this article reflects British usage. Americans use less hyphens than the British, and in particular have a penchant for creating compound words. The following are all correct in American English:

agribusiness
bailout
buildup
buyout
catchphrase
endgame
fainthearted
fieldworker
frontline
frontrunner
fundraiser
fundraising
gunrunner
handheld
healthcare
hothead
infrared
intergovernmental
layoff (noun)
likeminded
longstanding
midweek
midyear
newsstand
payoff (noun)
postwar
pothole
prewar
pullout (noun)
setup (noun)
shakeout (noun)
standoff
startup (noun)
taskforce
teargas
turnout (noun)
Proficient Speaker: Users in this role are known to maintain an excellent grasp of the English language. You can only be promoted to this role by the Englishforums team.
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Guest:
Which of these examples of hyphen usage is correct?
"Right- or left-handed scissors" or
"Right or left-handed scissors"?

Thanks!
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This is called a 'suspensive' hyphen, and is required: 'Right- or left-handed scissors'.
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