This entry addresses hyphens—no, not the ones at the end of a line of type trying to look “justified” (now there’s a loaded word if there ever was one), the ones that make a person with a touch of dyslexia go absolutely mad trying to put the letters into some sensible order—I mean the ones used in compound words and modifiers, and where you don’t know whether to make it two words, a single one, one with a hyphen in the middle . . . or just go find another bloody word! I think I’ll call it … Hyphenavigation!

There’s really no hard-and-fast rule here. Some say that whenever you have a two-word phrase modifying the next word (usually two adjectives before a noun) you should hyphenate the modifiers (e.g., “bright-red sky,” “high-school student“ or “mid-level manager”).

On the other hand, there are those who reserve this treatment for those situations where—well, without a hyphen the sentence is just ambiguous.

For example, take this sentence (lifted from “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” that delightful book solely dedicated to punctuation marks and their abuse, written by the decidedly clever, rarely pedantic British writer Lynne Truss; I’ll be blogging in much more detail about that book, which for some reason I had never read before, in an upcoming entry):

“There will always be a problem about getting rid of the hyphen: if it’s not extra-marital sex, it is perhaps extra marital sex, which is quite a different bunch of coconuts. Phrases abound that cry out for hyphens. Those much-invoked examples of the little used car, the superfluous hair remover, the pickled herring merchant, the slow moving traffic and the two hundred odd members of the Conservative Party  would all be lost without it.” (pp. 168-69).

Let’s examine these examples for a moment:

Is it a “little used car” or a “little-used car”? That is to say, is it a tiny vehicle, previously owned; or is it mostly sitting in the garage or driveway, regardless of its age or previous history?

Is this a “superfluous-hair remover” or a “superfluous hair-remover”? Does it snip out hair you don’t want, or is it really not necessary to have one? (Arguments could be raised on both sides of this debate.)

How about the merchant? Does he sell pickled herring (“the pickled-herring merchant”) or is he just a drunken fishmonger? (no hyphen anywhere in that description, unless it’s “herring-merchant”!)

Meanwhile, “slow-moving traffic” is pretty much a no-brainer, but if it’s not “the two-hundred-odd members…” in the final example, we are making some rather rude (whether justified or not) value judgments about the Conservative Party’s roster of officials.

These are just among the more obvious examples where that little hyphen becomes almost essential for reading clarity, and is the only way to avoid some rather embarrassing misreads of what the writer intended to express. I’ll leave it there for now; we might get into this one more deeply in the future.

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