10 Types of Hyphenation Errors

By Mark Nichol

I’ve written more than once about hyphens, including this previous post, but it remains a troublesome topic, so I’ll approach it from this direction, too: the categories of hyphenation errors.

1. Omitting Hyphens in Phrasal Adjectives

Some phrasal adjectives (including “civil rights,” “stock market,” and “high school”) don’t require hyphenation when they appear before a noun; they’re so well entrenched in the language that no risk of ambiguity exists, and their status is enshrined by inclusion in dictionaries.

But when two words team together to describe a noun, they’re usually hyphenated. (Leave them open after a noun, however.) If you can’t find them in your well-thumbed dictionary, attach them — and don’t hesitate to link more than two words: “The company instituted a pay-as-you-go plan.”

2. Adding Hyphens to Compound Words

Compound words come in three forms: open (“sand dollar”), hyphenated (sand-blind), and closed (sandbag). As you see from these examples, compounds including the same particular word are not necessarily treated the same; compounding is a random process related to usage. (Popular treatment of long-hyphenated compounds changes so rapidly that dictionaries change them in new editions to reflect prevailing usage; pigeonhole — formerly pigeon-hole — is just one example.)

3. Adding Hyphens to Prefixes

Prefixes, on the other hand, are almost always closed up to the root word. Exceptions include when the root word is a proper name (pre-Christian) and when the prefix ends and the root word begins with an i (anti-inflammatory). Note, however, that this is not true in the case of e (preempt). Another exception is words beginning with c preceded by co-, because to many people, terms like co-chair look awkward without a hyphen.

4. Omitting Hyphens from Potential Homographs

Sometimes, prefixed words that would otherwise be closed up retain a hyphen to distinguish them from otherwise identical-looking words, such as re-cover as opposed to recover and re-creation as distinct from recreation.

5. Omitting Hyphens in Verb Phrases

Compound verbs, those consisting of more than one word, are hyphenated (test-drive) or closed (troubleshoot); the dictionary will let you know which form to employ. Note, however, the difference in nearly identical-looking compound verbs and open compound nouns: “I’m going to test-drive it tomorrow,” but “I’m going to take it on a test drive tomorrow.”

Also, consider the subtle difference between gerunds formed from a hyphenated compound verb that are followed, or not followed, by an object: “I was spot-checking the report when I found a serious error,” but “I’m going to do a little spot checking.”

6. Adding Hyphens to Adverbial Phrases

Adverbs are not attached to adjectives when they team up to modify a noun: “The slowly melting ice rendered the river crossing a perilous enterprise.” However, the presence of an adverb does not negate the need for a hyphen in a phrasal adjective that follows it: “Hers was an eloquently sharp-tongued response.”

7. Adding Hyphens to Prepositional Phrases

Phrases telling the reader to do something in which the first word is a verb and the second is a preposition are not hyphenated: “Sign in at the registration table.” (The phrase is hyphenated, however, when it modifies a noun: “Go to the sign-in table.”)

8. Adding or Omitting Hyphens When Referring to Ages or Physical Dimensions

When a person is identified by their age with the phrase “seven-year-old,” for example, the phrase is hyphenated whether it modifies child, boy, girl, and so on or the noun is implied. (Note that two hyphens are necessary and that, for the spelled-out form of a two-digit number, three are required: “twenty-seven-year-old.”) However, the constituent words are unattached when the phrase follows the noun: “The child is seven years old.

By the same rules, words describing an object’s physical dimensions are similarly linked: “Cut the eight-foot-long board in half.” Note, again, that all the words describing the length of the board are attached: If the final hyphen is incorrectly omitted, the reference to a board that is eight feet long is erroneously changed to describe a long board with eight feet.

9. Omitting Letter Spaces When Using Hyphens

When you see a hyphen followed by a letter space, don’t assume the space is an error. “The assignment is a 2,000- to 5,000-word essay” is correct; word has been omitted after the first number because it is implied by its presence after the second number. (This usage is called suspensive hyphenation.)

10. Confusing Hyphens and Dashes

Many publications, for the sake of simplicity or because the producers don’t know any better, use single hyphens in place of em dashes or double hyphens (the less aesthetically pleasing alternative that is frequently employed online). But they look stubby and ugly, and this crime against aesthetics is compounded when letter spaces around them are omitted, producing abominations such as “The key-and this is important-is to keep stirring constantly.”

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19 Responses to “10 Types of Hyphenation Errors”

  • thebluebird11

    I’m glad you are a proponent of the “co-” construction, because the word “coworkers” drives me crazy without the hyphen. It looks like COWorkers. What is a cow orker?! I always use a hyphen there, and with other “co-” words as well, such as co-morbidities, co-surgeon and co-captain.

    Great pointers in your article, Mark. As usual! 🙂

  • Paul M

    This may sound like a stupid question, but I’m looking at my keyboard for an em dash: hyphen – , under-score _ , and if I press control and the same key I have to squint. Am I just blind and it’s right in front of me?

    Is it ee em dash, or em dash as in short for Emily?

    I look forward to your tips each morning before I go to work. Keep it up!

  • Deborah H

    May I vent? My pet peeve is the coop. No, no. I’m fine with chicken coops. But the people who don’t know the difference between a coop and a co-op make me crazy.

  • Esteban

    Paul, word processors such as Microsoft Word auto-format hyphens into either EN or EM dashes depending on how it was placed.

    For example, typing–and I hope this doesn’t auto-format–will place an EM dash in place of the two hyphens. (word/hyphen/hyphen/word.)

    EN dash has given me a little more pause, because it seems like in most cases there should be no spaces in between the EN dash and the words on either side. But, I believe an EN dash is auto-formatted when written like – this. (word/space/hyphen/space/word.)

    Can anybody tell me if “bottom-right-hand corner” is correct in its use of hyphens?

  • thebluebird11

    @Paul: In Word, if you type a word, then immediately type two hyphens in a row, then immediately type your next word, you get an em (pronounced EM, like the letter, and yes, as in “short for Emily”) dash. This didn’t work here as I was typing this post, but I just typed it in Word and copied/pasted it here, so it looks like this: If you type an em—and by that I mean a long—dash, that’s what you get 😉 You can also (in Word) select “Insert→symbol” and choose hex code symbol 0336, which is an em dash.

    @Deborah: Thanks for sharing. I agree!

  • Esteban

    And the HTML code definitely did auto-format the two hyphens and change it into a single hyphen.

  • shirley in berkeley

    What if you’re composing online, as I am here, and you want to insert an em dash? I’m on a Mac. Anyone know if it can be done and, if so, how? I know that I can do it easily in MS Word, but that means composing in Word, then copying and pasting, which sometimes results weird effects.

  • Paul M

    I’ll cut and paste this em dash—to see if it works.
    That’s with OpenOffice.

    If I try here–this is what happens in Firefox.

    Thanks so much for your help, it’s fun to learn new things.

  • Peter

    Is it ee em dash, or em dash as in short for Emily?

    It’s em-as-in-Emily — named after the letter M, which it was originally the width of.

    EN dash has given me a little more pause, because it seems like in most cases there should be no spaces in between the EN dash and the words on either side.

    That depends what you’re using it for. When it means something like “to” or “between”, as in “25–30” or “Boston–New York”, there shouldn’t be spaces around it; when you’re using it in the way most US publishers use an em-dash – most UK publishers use an en-dash for this purpose ­– it must have spaces both sides.

  • Peter

    What if you’re composing online, as I am here, and you want to insert an em dash? I’m on a Mac. Anyone know if it can be done and, if so, how? I know that I can do it easily in MS Word, but that means composing in Word, then copying and pasting, which sometimes results weird effects.

    On this site, last I checked, you can type three hyphens to get an em-dash—and two to get an en dash — but in general, no….I type “ModeSw 9” or “Compose hyphen hyphen hyphen” for an em-dash, on my (customized) Linux keyboard; don’t know if you can alter the MacOS keyboard the same way…

  • Peter

    Ah…maybe two-hyphens-for-an-en-dash only works if there’s no space around it–like this?

  • shirley in berkeley

    I found it on my Mac keyboard! It’s option/shift/hyphen! Now I can ditch those dreary single hyphens and avoid those (to some) offensive double hyphens to represent an em dash!

  • JKB

    Thank you very much. I’m an asian learning English. This website really helps me learning my day to day English.
    Thanx again and regards!

  • Bill Walsh

    I would argue that one essay of 2,000 to 5,000 words is “a 2,000-to-5,000-word essay.” Two essays, one of 2,000 words and one of 5,000, merit the suspensive treatment: “2,000- and 5,000-word essays.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Bill:

    Good point — thanks for the clarification!

    Everyone else:

    I respect all opinions, but I respect some more than others. And when Bill Walsh offers his opinion, I pay attention. My tip of the day is for you to do the same.

  • Doug Sanchez

    Re dashes, an em dash can be generated using the keyboard combination of ALT + 0151; an en dash with ALT + 0150. (That is: hold down the ALT key and type the numbers using the keypad, then let go of ALT.) On a Mac, an em dash is OPTION + SHIFT + hyphen; an en dash is OPTION + hyphen.

    Thank you for this informative and concise article; it was just what i needed.

  • Wernard

    An adverb is not a noun, Ted Beam. Nor is following the same as preceding.

    This guide says that phrasal adjectives following an adverb do not automatically lose hyphenation because of their being placed after the adverb.

    And the CMOS says that phrasal adjectives following a noun need not be hyphenated; when they precede a noun, however, then hyphenating them adds clarity (and thus preferably should be here).

    And in the example number six, the phrasal adjective follows an adverb (which is not a noun), and precedes a noun. So the guide is correct, the CMOS is correct, there is no discrepancy between them, and—and yes, I am aware I sound really mean here, but I don’t think I can be blunt enough without sounding mean—you should learn how to understand what you read before you try to correct a guide.

  • Gal

    The #3 mentions that prefixes are almost always closed up to the root word. The exceptions don’t mention anything about “auto.” So I understand “autoforward” is written as one word. Any thoughts?

  • Mark Nichol

    Gal:
    Yes, treat autoforward as a closed compound, just like autocorrect.

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