Hyphens bits and bobs

Posted on 4 July 2014 by Lucy Gregory

I guess you’re well and truly fed up with hyphens by now. But since I’ve started on this topic, I will finish.

This post ties up a few loose ends including a couple of puzzling hyphen scenarios I’ve come across recently. Do post your own hyphen queries in the comment section and I’ll come straight back to you.

If you missed parts 1 and 2, you can find them here:

Hyphens to create new words and phrases
Hyphens with prefixes

1. Hyphens to write numbers

A nice and easy one here.

Use a hyphen when writing out numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine. Also pop a hyphen into any fractions.

2. Hyphens to clarify your meaning

Every so often, a hyphen (or its lack) can change the meaning of what you say. This is delightfully demonstrated by the cartoon above.

Knowing whether or not to use a hyphen on these occasions is often instinctive. But if you’re ever in doubt, just ask us and we’ll help.


3. Using more than one hyphen

Earlier this week I came across this phrase: non-UK based investor. It got me thinking.

Ordinarily, you would describe something in the UK as UK-based. So, to be correct, something outside the UK should be non-UK-based (with two hyphens). But it doesn’t look right – and a quick Google search suggests most people drop the second hyphen.

So what’s the answer? I can’t bring myself to write the common version, knowing it’s wrong. So I avoided the conundrum altogether by rewriting the phrase as non-UK investor. I don’t think the word based adds anything anyway.

There are, of course, times when we don’t think twice about using double hyphens. Mother-in-law and pick-me-up are two examples.

4. Hyphenating ‘mid’

Last week I talked about hyphens with prefixes. You can pick up the conversation here if you missed it. Since then, I have been asked about hyphenating the word ‘mid’.

We’re all comfortable seeing ‘mid’ hyphenated as part of a description: mid-sized company or mid-range pricing. And it’s also normal to hyphenate ‘mid’ when it comes before a number: mid-1950s.

But then I was presented with this: mid to late 1980s. Hmmmm.

Hyphenating the mid alone doesn’t work: mid-to late 1980s. Hyphenating throughout seems wrong: mid-to-late 1980s. But it looks very odd without any hyphens at all.

In the end I ditched both hyphens. First, life is too short. Second, it seems to be the prevailing view of sensible language experts.

Hopefully, this story and the previous one give you comfort that hyphens confuse everyone – even writing specialists.

5. Not a hyphen, but a dash

Although hyphens and dashes look similar, they’re very different punctuation marks. For a start, dashes are twice as long.

The dash is a useful tool that can straighten the wonkiest of sentences. That said, some people think they’re sloppy punctuation, so it’s best to avoid them in formal documents where other punctuation can do the same job.

Use a dash to connect people or places (the Jones–Smith partnership), to show a range of numbers, letters or dates (open Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm) or to add extra information to a sentence instead of brackets or commas (Most people – other than language pedants – love using dashes).

And that, as they say, is that. If I come across any more confusing hyphen uses, I will add them to this list. In the meantime, have a glorious weekend.