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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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hiphen :-)

This week folks I’m talking about the hyphen. I’ve had quite a few requests to write about this, i.e., only one, which is one more than what I usually get. So here is what I found out about usage of the hyphen in the last five minutes from Wikipedia, from the page I completely rewrote 15 minutes ago to suit my ideas.

In modern-day English usage, hyphens are mainly used in emoticons, forming the nose. However, rules concerning emoticons are vague at best, and many people omit the hyphen altogether, favouring brevity over physiologically-correct textual expressions. :-\

Seriously though, hyphens aren’t so easy to explain. They are used to connect or separate words, either for style purposes or to clarify meaning. Most commonly (apart from in emoticons) they are used in what is called a compound modifier, where it is used to connect descriptive words together when one modifies the other and not the noun, making the meaning clear. Take some sort of awesome vegetable that eats people, for example. You’d describe it like this:

“A man-eating celery is causing havoc in the library.”

Note the placement of the hyphen between ‘man’ and ‘eating’. This is because here the word ‘man’ describes the word ‘eating’ (and not ‘celery’), and only together they describe the noun ‘celery’. If we remove the hyphen, the meaning of the sentence changes drastically:

“A man eating celery is causing havoc in the library.”

Without the hyphen, it now says that a man who is eating celery is causing havoc in the library. Now that’s just weird. Why the fuck would he be eating celery? Who the fuck likes celery anyway? Especially when it’s not covered in peanut butter or hummus? Does he know he’s not allowed to eat in the library?

So as you can see, if you don’t use hyphens properly, it can just cause a whole lot of confusion. I know I’m confused (celery has fewer calories than it takes to eat! What’s up with that‽). We need another example. Basically you need to decide if the words belong together, and use a hyphen if they do:

“Dr Dre-dissin’ gangsta fools and their zombie-like moaning.”

Just like in the previous example, the hyphen is placed in between ‘Dr Dre’ and ‘dissin’, as ‘Dr Dre’ describes what the fools are dissin’. Note that ‘gangsta’ is hyphen-free (see what I did just there?), because it is being used as an adjective that isn’t being modified by anything else—i.e., the fools are gangstas as well as Dr Dre-dissin’. If we removed the first hyphen, it would mean that Dr Dre is dissin’ the gangsta fools. Also note the hyphen between ‘zombie’ and ‘like’, as ‘like’ is being added as a suffix to modify ‘zombie’ into an adjective.

However, if the adjective is preceded by an adverb, no hyphen is necessary, as adverbs can’t modify nouns—they describe the how, when, where and why, modifying verbs and adjectives—so it is clear that it modifies the adjective and not the noun. Adverbs commonly end in –ly.

There is also something called a suspended hyphen, which is when you leave the hyphen hanging so you can add another bit of info to modify the noun. For example:

“Early fourteenth- and fifteenth-century rappers mainly addressed the darker issues of their time, such as the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition. However, due to their target audience of gangstas being completely non-existent until the late twentieth century, these rappers had very little effect on the development of medieval society.”

This is basically to save you the time of saying/writing ‘century’ twice, and if you do it properly then I’ll give you a high five.

Hyphens are a tricky thing to explain. You have to pay attention to the meaning of descriptive words, and decide whether they belong together and need a hyphen. Note also that a hyphen is different to a dash, like this thing here—dashes are longer and are used for different purposes.

The Holy Salient Style Guide preaches that we use em dashes to break up sentences and for asides—like this right here—because it looks sexy (Punctuation, 3:12). There is also the shorter en dash, which is commonly used with ranges, meaning ‘to’. Here’s one final example with a hyphen, en dash and em dash:

“This half-arsed column took me 4–5 days to finish—fuck this, I quit. Again.”

– hyphen |– en dash | — em dash

Get out your rulers.

Questions about grammerz? Email me at

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About the Author ()

Mikey learned everything he knows about English Grammar in an MSN chat room when he was 13. Believing that people don't say "LOL" enough in everyday conversation, he has made it his mission to teach the world about grammerz one person at a time.

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