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Hyphens: Don’t dash your hopes of writing clearly

John Murray

Hiding next to the zero on the top row of your keyboard, you’ll find the hyphen lurking underneath the underscore.

It’s an unusual glyph and no clear rules exist on how to use it, but using it badly can  lead to confusion or an unintended meaning.

Consider the following three sentences:

“The high school students were bored.”
“The high-school students were bored.”
“The high school-students were bored.”

The first one has a degree of ambiguity; are we talking about students of high schools, or school students who are high (be this through narcotic use or simply being a long way off the ground)? The second example seems to confirm the former, while the third suggests the latter. This shows how the same set of words can be given very different implications depending on the inclusion and position of a hyphen.

So where, when and why should we hyphenate? Here are the two main cases:

1. Adjectives formed by combining several words

Hyphens are used to avoid confusion when using an adjective that consists of more than one word. For example, if you own a company and you want to say that it has experienced high growth over a short time frame, you might write:

“We are a fast-growing company.”

That’s easy enough to understand, because you’ve used the hyphen correctly, but what if you wrote:

“We are a fast, growing company.”

Now, you’re saying that your company is both fast and growing. This might apply to somebody who sold burgers from a Formula One vehicle, for example. In reality, it’s much more likely that you’re describing your growth as being fast rather than the company itself.

What if you omitted both the hyphen and the comma? Then you would have:

“We are a fast growing company.”

People would probably know what you mean here, but it’s not clear. It could mean that your company is fast, and it deals with growth; perhaps you grow crops or specialize in helping other businesses grow, and you do this at a high velocity?

There are other examples, such as:

“The hard-hit areas of Britain were flooded.”

“The team signed an over-the-hill striker.”

2. Making a noun out of a verb and preposition

A lot of verbs in English make little sense unless followed by a preposition, and their meaning can change completely when they do. Consider the verb ‘to break’; we can break up, break down, break in, break out, break off or break through.

Often, these verbal phrases turn nicely into nouns, but they will need the help of our hyphen friend:

“Linda is going to break up with James.”
“James and Linda have gone through a break-up.”

“You’ve set up a good business.”
“This business is a good set-up.”

The hyphen should be handled with care, but never draw a line at using it.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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