Hyphens to create new words and phrases

Posted on 20 June 2014 by Lucy Gregory

Introduction to hyphens

Do you hate hyphens? I do. There are countless rules and even more exceptions. And even if you get to grips with them, there’ll be times you’re not sure and have to take a punt (or Google it).

Unfortunately, hyphens are important. Hyphens (or lack of them) can really affect the readability of your document. And using them properly will mark you out as someone who knows their stuff. Get them wrong and you could look foolish.

So in this hyphen mini-series, we run through some common hyphen uses and mistakes. But remember the wise words of the Oxford University Press style guide: ‘If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad’.

1. Hyphens to create new words

In English, we use hyphens to form new words out of existing words. Over time the hyphens tend to disappear, leaving a single word.

Of course, the rules is not always applied consistently. While ’email’ is now written without the hyphen, ‘e-learning’ and ‘e-commerce’ are usually hyphenated. If you’re not sure whether a word is hyphenated or not, check an up-to-date UK dictionary.

2. Hyphens to create a description from two or more words (known as compound adjectives)

You can put a description before the thing it’s describing or after it.

Only use a hyphen if the description comes beforehand.
If the description comes after, it’s written without hyphens.
And you shouldn’t use a hyphen if the description starts with a word ending in ly (known as an adverb).

3. Hyphens to create action phrases

There are some phrases which can be used to describe a thing (noun) or an action (verb) depending on the context.

When you use these phrases as nouns, they should be hyphenated.
When these phrases are used as verbs, they don’t need a hyphen.
Right, that’s probably enough hyphens for one day. But if you’re eager for more, here’s parts 2 and 3:

How to use hyphens: part 2
How to use hyphens: part 3