A hyphen is used to join words, so hyphen usage is a common question. For example, I’m often asked, “Which is correct, pre-approval or pre approval?”
Another common question is “country wide or country-wide?” or “nationwide or nation-wide?” Read on to get the answers to these questions.
First, some vocabulary. A prefix is part of a word that’s attached to a word root to change the meaning. It comes before (pre) and it’s attached (fix). Notice that there is no hyphen. That’s your first rule.
Use a hyphen for the prefixes ex-, self-, and all-
Certain prefixes use a hyphen: self-, as in self-regulation, self-contained, self-esteem, etc. We also use a hyphen with ex- when it indicates a former condition: ex-army, ex-wife, ex-student. Do not use a hyphen when “ex” is an intrinsic part of the word: external, extreme, exude. Use a hyphen for all- to indicate a condition that is widespread: all-encompassing, all-girl, all-senior. This is actually more like the compound adjective case discussed below.
But for most prefixes, do not use a hyphen. This is the case for preapproval.
First: “pre” cannot stand on its own. It is not a word. It must be attached to a root word. So we can have pre-approval or preapproval, but not pre approval. So which is it?
Here’s a Google n-gram for both preapproval and pre-approval. You can see that preapproval is almost twice as common as pre-approval. Similarly, a hyphen is unnecessary in unnecessary.
Sometimes a hyphen is necessary with a prefix. For example, to differentiate re-create (build again) from recreate (enjoy a leisure activity).
Use hyphens with compound adjectives
The most common time you need a hyphen is when you have two adjectives that work together to modify a noun. When the two adjectives are independent you simply use a comma. For example, I live in a large, brick house. The house is large. The house is made of bricks. On the other hand, if I lived in a yellow-brick house, the house would be made of yellow bricks. The first adjective modifies the second adjective, not the noun.
My Fowler’s Standard English Usage goes on for four pages about hyphenation. Fowler places clarity of meaning above all. The example he gives is “The Russians could be well content if they could get all-German talks started on something like their terms.” You can see that elimination of the hyphen would make the sentence more confusing. Certain words like happy-go-lucky need to have hyphens. We often use hyphens for words that are compounded and then they evolve into single words such as crossword or bookbinder.
Hyphen questions and answers
Which is the proper form: “half a dozen” or “half-a-dozen”?
Because the article “a” comes between the two adjectives, the need for a hyphen is reduced. For “half-dozen” I’d say “yes.”
- The recipe calls for half a dozen eggs.
- The recipe calls for a half-dozen eggs.
In using the phrase “country wide consolidated report”, would you use a hyphen as in “country-wide”?
This is similar to the prefix situation. I’d actually write it as a single word: countrywide. This is consistent with the Google n-gram viewer, which shows the use of country-wide peaking in about 1960, and countrywide becoming much more popular since.
Is it proper to use “half price drinks” or “half-price drinks” or “half-priced drinks” or some other variation of this term?
Who’s going to complain about half-price drinks, no matter how you spell them? (Just don’t spill them!) For clarity, I’d write “half-price” drinks. The addition of the “d” to make it past tense is not necessary.