Punctuation - Hyphens and hypenation

Hyphens can often cause writers problems and it’s easy to see why. Consider the difference between these where in the first case we are talking about the quality of the object whereas in the second we are referring to the delicate nature of the thread or the teeth.:

  • a fine silk dress v. a fine-silk dress
  • a fine tooth comb v. a fine-tooth comb

Unless we use hyphens, this can produce uncertainty on occasions:

  • short circuit wire
  • small business managers
  • hot water bottle
  • part time keepers
  • heavy weight training
  • extra marital affairs

The complexities are increased because while we may happily write about completing a course by distance learning; however, if we were to write about our distance-learning course we should put a hyphen between those two features of the course. In the same way we would write about a computer-operated production line. Here are two sentences to read and then consider the list below:

  • My apartment is on the tenth floor.
  • My father drives a long distance every day.

Compared with:

  • tenth-floor apartment
  • long-distance lorry driver
  • over-eager lover
  • small-time crook

It’s often a problem for writers to know when to put a hyphen and when to leave one out. Some words seem to clearly require a hyphen: fire-engine. Writing this as one word would look odd with the two vowels together (fireengine) while fire engine would not seem to be quite right either. In the same way we generally use a hyphen with words like co-operate or co-operative or co-ordinate.

Which of these three would one choose?

  • tin opener
  • tin-opener
  • tinopener

We are unlikely to choose the first while the third option would clearly be rejected. In the same way we have other words such as:

  • water-bottle
  • spin-off
  • drawing-pin
  • cattle-prod
  • walking-stick
  • red-hot

If we used a writing desk this would seem to be rather odd as it would suggest that the desk was doing the writing, which is perhaps why we prefer to opt for writing-desk. The same would be true of walking-stick.

Certain well-established words (note the hyphen) do not require a hyphen at all because they have come to be accepted as single words. These include:

  • bedroom
  • teapot
  • windscreen
  • dishwasher
  • football
  • cardboard
  • wheelbarrow


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