November 21, 2013 - Comments Off on To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? That is the question.

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? That is the question.

It’s a myth that copywriters and proof readers know everything about language. Sure, some know a hell of a lot about the intricacies of English, but it’s simply impossible for anyone to store every single weird and wonderful grammatical rule that exists in their already bustling brains.

Take hyphens and dashes, for example. I like a dash – or em dash, as they’re technically known – because they’re flexible. I tend to use them all over the place – especially when I sense a semi colon could’ve been appropriate. And I say ‘sense’ there because, when I’m writing my first draft, I go on a good old fashioned hunch (and then I’ll check what’s actually correct later, when I’m proofreading).

Ah, proofreading. Or should it be proof-reading? Hyphenated or not? Neither has been underlined in red while typing this in Microsoft Word, so what’s right and what’s wrong?

Semi colon. Semi-colon. Semicolon. They’re all accepted by Word! Come on, hyphen – make your mind up! Are you in or are you out?

In cases like the above, it’s best to choose one version and stick to it. That’s why we have style guides – to stay consistent. When you start mixing things up, readers get confused. Ok, they’ll still be able to get what you’re saying, but it’s human nature to form opinions of others based on things like language. Inconsistent spelling can still reflect a person’s lack of attention to detail, just as much as incorrect spelling can.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of semi colons either; they just look a bit awkward and clumsy. I get the feeling that people like using them because they look clever. It’s almost like, ‘I’ve thrown a few semi colons in there – that’ll show people I know language’. Semi colons are the undoing of so many people. They’d probably undo me, too, so I prefer to err on the side of caution.

But if you really want to know what function semi colons have, and when you should (and shouldn’t) use them, you’ll find an excellent and simple explanation on The Oatmeal (other grammar reference websites are available).

So let’s get back to hyphens. It turns out that they’re not particularly cool these days, especially in compound words. Who remembers reading a really old book where the word ‘today’ was written as ‘to-day’? That lost its hyphen yonks ago. More recently, words like ‘email’ and ‘website’ have dropped the dash. And as odd as it looks, words like ‘straightforward’ and ‘counterattack’ are perfectly acceptable as one (although it’s worth pointing out that there are style guides out there that will disagree).

‘Baby-sit’, ‘kick-start’ and John Terry’s favourite word ‘super-injunction’ have all lost their hyphens. The Guardian Style Guide (which is my choice of style guide) says it uses one word wherever possible because “hyphens tend to clutter up text”. It gives loads more examples of modern words that began life as two and now exist as one.

What about those words that remain as two? On the one hand you can say the ‘build-up’ to the match was tense, but the fans like to ‘build up’ the tension. The noun is hyphenated while the verb isn’t. But if you carry out a spot check now, you won’t need to spot-check tomorrow (ok, so now the noun isn’t hyphenated, but the verb is. No wonder people get confused).

‘Reform’ doesn’t need a hyphen, surely? Well it depends on context. If a scientist is willing two cells to re-form (as in, form again) then we welcome our hyphen friend back in from the cold.

In an ideal world we could just do away with all hyphens. ‘Kick-off’ could simply become ‘kickoff’ (and, given the way language works, it’s just a matter of time before that happens). But what about ‘selfassured’, or ‘allinclusive’? How about ‘firstclass’ and ‘topnotch’? You can never quite know where language will go next, but I’d say those last few will never catch on.

That’s because, sadly, there are many, many principles behind when it’s necessary (and unnecessary) to use hyphens. I don’t know all of them, which is why I often refer to a style guide or even search the internet for answers while I’m writing. And you don’t have to search hard to find what you’re looking for.

Going back to my original point, the difference copywriters and proof-readers make is that they have the inclination to check. And double check. And triple check. As they should. In fact, if they’re anything like me, they’ll probably confess to having some form of obsessive compulsive disorder – which, in this context at least (when a client’s brand and reputation is on the line) is a healthy thing to have.

I don’t know everything about grammar. I’ve got a good grounding in the subject, which I can build on by constantly using reference books, the internet and any other resources I can get my real and virtual hands on.

But I’ll always need to check when little things, like hyphens, enter the equation. The rules of language are forever changing. It’s a challenge that should keep all of us on our toes!