Sunday, October 04, 2009

Grammar: Hi-ho hyphens

Whether you call them hyphens or dashes, the way you use them can make a difference. I hyphenate some words and add dashes between others, but it's all the same to me, and sometimes it seems like Greek.

Compound words can be written separately, combined into a single word or separated by a dash, which actually brings them together into a hyphenated word.

song stylist

In a word like hair stylist some dictionaries list it as hair stylist and some dictionaries list it as hairstylist. It depends on which dictionary you use as to which is right, so the final word on compounds words isn't in and changes will likely be made. Isn't that usually the way with some parts of grammar? Just when you think you know how it goes, someone comes along and changes it.

In the following examples, the use of hyphens is set in stone -- for now.

  1. Hyphens are used to join two or more words that act as a single adjective before a noun.

  2. three-way Foley catheter
    tow-haired boy
    three-toed sloth

    When the compound adjectives used as a modifier comes after a noun, they are not hyphenated.

    The boy was tow haired.
    The sloth was three toed.

  3. Of course, everyone knows about compound numbers and few people get this one wrong.

  4. sixty-nine
    The eighty-eight zombies formed a sixty-nine.

  5. If a word will look confusing or be awkward, especially in the case of a prefix that ends with a vowel when the word following begins with a vowel, use a hyphen. This one happens a lot in medicine. Doctors have the idea that just because they can cut open people, they know about grammar and stick prefixes on everything, whether it sounds right or not. They can be so lazy--and wrong.

  6. You resign from a job, but you re-sign your pink slip.
    semi-infantile (but semi-boyfriend)
    bell-like (but sylphlike)

  7. Some prefixes automatically get a hyphen: ex-, all-, and self- (although I think it is an affection to use self- with some words, like self-protect instead of protect yourself); with the suffix -elect; between capitalized words and prefixes, and with figures or letters.

  8. ex-husband (one of my favorites)
    pre-Civil War

  9. Use a hyphen to divide words at the end of lines and make the break only between syllables. This rule is for all of us who remember typing on a machine that didn't automatically hyphenate words at the ends of lines, and for those still using archaic programs that don't change the spacing between letters to make words fit so neatly when there's room for only part of the word.

  10. anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism

  11. When breaking an already-hyphenated word, break at the hyphen.

  12. mass-

  13. If a word ends in -ing, or with double consonants in a root word before the suffix (-ing), split the double consonants and hyphenate; otherwise, use a hyphen in front of the suffix.

  14. plot-ting

  15. The exception to example #5 (and you knew there'd be an exception) is that you never separate the first or last letter of a word at the end or beginning of a new line and don't use two-letter suffixes at the beginning of a new line.

  16. quarterly (no break for the -ly)
    e-lim-i-nate (separate either before or after the middle -i-; don't leave the e- hanging out by itself.

So far, so fairly painless. When you get right down to it, hyphens are all about making words easier to read and your thoughts easier to understand. It's basically common sense.

Although there's no place for it elsewhere, I thought I'd mention em dashes. Those are the long hyphens/dashes between phrases in a sentence that have come into such widespread use and take the place of the parentheses.

When using an em dash, it should begin at the end of one word and end at the beginning of the next word with no space in between.

There was no place I could go—if I actually wanted to leave—no one really wants a woman with sixteen cats.

Because it's a little difficult (and I'm lazy) to use in blogs like these, I usually use a space before and after double dashes to denote an em dash. I suppose I could code it, but this is a blog after all and I tend to be a little loose with fussy details like em dashes. However, I do my best to make sure the grammar goofs are few because it just makes me look better, sets me apart from the rabble, so to speak, and because I never know when a publisher or editor will decide to cruise over to my blog to check out how I do things when I think no one's looking. It's like keeping the house clean even when no company is expected. It's just easier and prevents rushing around at the last minute to throw all the dishes in the dishwasher and the unfolded and unwashed laundry in the stove, praying all the time that no one expects to be fed anything that must be cooked in the oven. A door on the kitchen is best for those occasions.

Until next time (whenever I get a few minutes free from research, work and writing), may all your grammar goofs be easy to find and fix before a publisher reads your submission.

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