Free Grammar HelpHyphens

One question that I'm often asked is when to use a hyphen? Hyphens are shifty little beggars whose use constantly changes. If there's one character in grammar who demonstrates the constantly evolving nature of the English language it's the hyphen. Do not use a hyphen with two words that normally can stand alone, such as thank you. Do use a hyphen with a compound adjective such as year-old. (Note: it's year-old, not years-old. i.e. He's a three-year-old boy; he's three years old.)

Sometimes use a hyphen with non-. What? Sometimes? What the heck? Well, the British tend to favour the use of a hyphen and Americans tend to favor the word without a hyphen. Isn't that what the Revolutionary War was about? A complete separation. Think of it this way: non-Americans vs Americans. We Canadians just live in confusion.

Grammarians often do not agree on when to use hyphens. There are probably fist fights (or fist-fights) outside grammar conventions over the use of hyphens because grammarians can argue like three-year-olds. Researching this article, I found many different opinions. I recently read a blog that stated, following the Chicago rules of style, that hyphens are only used for adjectives that form a single meaning to modify a noun. The example given was "nearly extinct wolves." The argument is that "nearly" modifies "extinct," and "extinct" modifies "wolves." I left a comment stating that Fowler's Modern English usage suggests hyphens for any place where meaning is made clearer. I think that "nearly-extinct wolves" is a much clearer concept: these are wolves that are nearly extinct.

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Countrywide or country-wide?

The word "countrywide" has evolved from "country-wide". Most people now write it as "countrywide"; however, the latter (the use of country-wide with a hyphen) is still considered an acceptable variant, even if it is much less used. You should use "countrywide."

Nation-wide or Nationwide?

A similar rule is true for "nationwide". We simply use "wide" as a suffix attache to "nation." Do not use a hyphen and write "nation-wide."

Thank you or thank-you?

This is simple. There is no hyphen in thank-you. It's simply two words: thank you.

Changing rules on hyphens: well-being

But we also use hyphens to form compound words that are not yet accepted as single words. For example the game baseball was once called “base ball.” Then it became “base-ball.” Finally, today we call it baseball.  There’s no confusion about it now, so we don't need a hyphen. What there is confusion about is whether a compound is accepted today or needs a hyphen. Even if I could give you an exhaustive list today, it would start becoming out of date tomorrow. Even my grammar checker will flag something as needing a hyphen, then when I put in the hyphen, it flags it as not needing a hyphen! For example, well being, wellbeing, or well-being. All of them are commonly used. Since I edit a lot of nursing essays I see this word / these words regularly. As far as I am concerned, the correct version uses a hyphen: well-being. This is backed up by a Google Ngram search that shows well-being as by far the most commonly used form. The important thing for something like this is to be consistent throughout your document, and perhaps in your corporate style.

Three basic rules for usage of hyphens

Rule 1: hyphens are used to make the meaning more clear. We can use them to join two or more words that serve as a single adjective before a noun.

Example: blue-green algae or wide-bodied jet. I don't see the difference between wide-bodied jet and nearly-extinct wolves. (Except when I'm hiking in the woods, or want to go to Florida on vacation.) A common usage is in a reference to age: my ten-year-old car. (Or: my car is ten years old.)

Rule 2: We can use a hyphen to avoid mixing up words with similar words. An example would be re-create (to begin anew) instead of recreate (take a vacation.)

Rule 3: Hyphens with prefixes: We use a hyphen with compounds with the prefix “self,” “ex,” “all” etc.

Do I seem self-important? My ex-wife certainly thinks so.

We can also use hyphens to join prefixes to word roots when the combination of letters might make reading difficult. For example: pre-approval is better than preapproval. (But pre-fix is not acceptable at all.)