Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hyphens made easy

Hyphens made easy
Tim North,

Your readers judge you on the way you write.

This applies whether you're writing advertising copy, a college or business report, a web site, or the next great novel; and it's these judgements that will determine the success or failure of your venture.

For example, would you buy a book if you flipped through the pages and saw spelling errors? Probably not. Such errors would detract from the credibility of what was written. Similarly, the Internet is full of web sites offering to tell you how to write fantastic advertising copy that will triple your sales.

The irony is that most of these sites look like they're written by an illiterate. You know the ones: spelling errors, poor grammar, ridiculous punctuation, and way too many exclamation marks.

Good, solid writing skills are necessary whether you're writing for business, college or fiction. In this article, I'm going to look at a frequently misunderstood area: hyphens.

Yes, it sounds dull; I admit it. Wait, though, before being tempted to put this article to one side, and test yourself with these real-world questions.

  Q1. Why do many dictionaries list "infra-red" with a hyphen, but "ultraviolet" without?

  Q2. Why does only the first of the following sentences need a hyphen?
          We will discuss public-safety issues.
          We will discuss issues of public safety.

  Q3. Which of these is the preferred spelling:
          co-ordinator or coordinator?
          mid 1990s or mid-1990s?
          selfesteem, self-esteem or self esteem?

Are you certain of all your answers? If not, read on, and we'll cover some simple guidelines for using hyphens. (You'll also find the answers to the questions above.)

1. The prefix "self" is nearly always hyphenated; e.g. self-esteem, self-image, self-conscious.

2. When the prefix "ex" is used to mean former, it is always hyphenated; e.g. ex-wife, ex-premier, ex-treasurer.

3. Most of the time, other prefixes don't need a hyphen; i.e. most dictionaries list "coexist" not "co-exist."

4. We sometimes use a hyphen after a prefix, though, if the main word has only one syllable; e.g. infra-red. By comparison, ultraviolet doesn't need a hyphen (according to most dictionaries) because the main word is not one syllable.

5. Use a hyphen after a prefix in order to separate a doubled vowel; e.g. pre-empt, de-emphasize. There are some exceptions, though. Many modern dictionaries spell "cooperate" and "coordinate" without hyphens.

6. We tend to hyphenate compound words only if they come before a noun, not after. For example, we write "a public-safety issue" with a hyphen, but "an issue of public safety" is written without one.

7. Use a hyphen after the prefix if the main word has a hyphen of its own; e.g. non-customer-focussed approach.

Armed with these simple guidelines, you'll soon be using hyphens like an expert. Good luck!  :-)

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