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Use of hyphens

This page collects a series of notes from readers of my newsletter, and my responses to those notes, arising from an article in issue 60, 13 May 2002. I thank those who took the time to write and explain *why* some hyphen usage is considered to be correct or incorrect.

Here’s the original question and answer:
“I’m writing to enquire about your use of the first hyphen in the phrase ‘clearly-labeled stand-alone tutorial’ (in your recent article titled ‘Are chapter numbers necessary?’). The references that I use at work (Chicago and Gregg’s) recommend against such a hyphen. Do you use a different reference that mandates this hyphen?”

I answered,
“No, in that case I used it because there were four words in a row modifying ‘tutorial’ and it seemed more clear (and more balanced) to hyphenate each set of two. That first hyphen isn’t necessary, and as you say, standard references these days recommend against it. Actually, I think I use it mostly because back in the dark ages when I studied grammar (which was taught in schools in those days) then that hyphen was more commonly used. But I could be misremembering.”

In issue 61, I published a letter from Carol Luers Eyman, who said,
“Many style books recommend against the hyphen after adverbs ending in ‘ly,’ and I followed the rule blindly for years before the reasoning behind it became clear to me one day: adverbs ending in ‘ly’ always modify the word immediately following them, so they don’t require a hyphen to indicate which word they modify (‘neatly dressed woman,’ ‘hastily prepared remarks,’ ‘readily available materials’).

“But in sentences with compound adjectives, the first adjective sometimes modifies the next word and sometimes modifies a later word. For example, in ‘small college professor’ the word ‘small’ might modify ‘college’ but it could also modify ‘professor.’ If the former is true, adding a hyphen after ‘small’ makes the meaning clear.”

Lea Galanter wrote in the same issue, “I was taught that ‘-ly’ adverbs are NEVER hyphenated. (I think I recall, though, that in the UK my editor friends do hyphenate these kinds of adverb phrases, so maybe we were just taught differently.) …I think the clearest way to handle this phrase is to punctuate it this way: a clearly labeled, stand-alone tutorial.”

I received two responses to that issue.

Chuck Brandstater wrote,
“In the Use of Hyphens discussion, Lea wrote in part: ‘I think the clearest way to handle this phrase is to punctuate it this way: a clearly labeled, stand-alone tutorial.’

“But as Carol indirectly implied, the comma could subtly change the meaning. If the tutorial is clearly labeled or marked or identified (any of the three participles will serve to illustrate) as being of the stand-alone variety, there should be no comma, whose presence would signal that the label addressed matters other than stand-alone status. (I too would avoid hyphenating an adverb of this form, including in this context.)”

Barbara Benjamin wrote,
“Hyphenated prefixes (or, should it be ‘pre-fixes’?) is one of my pet peeves because they are used incorrectly (or should that be ‘in-correctly’?) so frequently in print that when using them correctly, they appear to be incorrect. To that end, I’m curious why you hyphenate many common prefixes, such as ‘non,’ as in ‘non-student.'”

I responded,
“I definitely agree that prefixes which are part of a common word (like incorrectly or prefixes) should absolutely not be hyphenated. However, the hyphenation of some other words is more a matter of style choice than absolute correctness. I put into the latter group many ‘word combinations’ (I can’t think of the technical term right now), the sort that go through a transition from hyphenated to non-hyphenated. I generally hyphenate words beginning with ‘non’ although I recognise that many style guides don’t accept that.”

Barbara’s note continued,
“I was taught that prefixes are hyphenated when they can be confused with another word. For example, ‘re-create’ (to create again) could be confused with ‘recreate.’ And, they are used when the last letter of the prefix is the same as the first letter of the word, such as ‘re-engineer.'”

I agree.

Barbara continued,
“Thus, ‘non-student’ is incorrect because, according to either rule, there is no reason for it to be hyphenated. So, could you let me know if there is any other reason why words such as ‘nonstudent’ or ‘multinational’ should be hyphenated?”

I replied,
“I think this is a style choice and, to some extent, a difference between varieties of English. It becomes a rule if you follow a style guide that says ‘don’t use a hyphen in these situations,’ but a style guide that says ‘hyphens are acceptable in these situations’ is equally legitimate.”

In her next note Barbara said, “I’d like to point out one other thing about hyphens, if I may. All dictionaries and style guides, such as MLA or Chicago Manual of Style, that I have consulted on this subject indicates that prefixes are *not* hyphenated, except for the two exceptions I’ve mentioned [in my previous note]. However, there is a third exception that I forgot to mention: when the prefix is added to a word that is init capped (non-English). In fact, the Webster’s New College dictionary doesn’t even hyphenate words such as nonnative and nonnegotiable.

“The reason words with prefixes are not hyphenated is because prefixes are not words–they do not stand alone. So, hyphenating prefixes cannot be a matter of style. We don’t arbitrarily choose to hyphenate suffixes; so why prefixes? I have never worked as a writer anywhere where the style was to arbitrarily hyphenate some prefixes and not others.”

Those comments made me stop and think, for which I thank Barbara profusely. I then said,
“Good points about hyphens, particularly that prefixes are not words and therefore should not be set off by hyphens. Seems to me, though, that some prefixes, such as non and multi, once were treated as adjectives or adverbs or something similar and were regarded as words — but aren’t seen that way anymore. So words that included those groups of letters were once hyphenated, at least in some variations of English, and many people still use them that way even though the conventional usage now is not to hyphenate.

“In my case, odd hyphen usage is usually a sign of sloppy proofreading .”

In her next note, Barbara said,
“Your theory of multi and non once being an adjective (or, complete words) that became prefixes is not true. Multi and non are and have always been prefixes, as well as poly and semi, which all derive from Latin. Multi is not a contraction or truncated version of multiple, which most people assume. There are some cases in which poly is used as a shortened form of the word polygon, but the use of it is not in common everyday language. I encountered that form of poly as a technical writer for a software developer.”

My final comment: Barbara gets my award for tact and diplomacy in educational (as opposed to argumentative) editing.

Further correspondence on the use of hyphens is welcome.

Last updated 17 June 2002