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Like many of the punctuation marks, there is a lot to learn about hyphens and Wikipedia provides a comprehensive overview.
Hyphens look like dashes, and there is also the option for a hyphen bullet point. However, hyphens are generally used to separate the syllables of a word, especially prefixes and suffixes.
The word is then called a hyphenated word.
Non-hyphenated is a hyphenated word!
Double-barrelled names include a hyphen.
Hyphens can also act as an aid to clarity. So, some words have (and need) hyphens; without them, the words might be unintelligible.
For some, the hyphen changes the meaning.
great granddaughter & great-granddaughter
recover & re-cover
In written text, numbers and fractions are spelled out, and hyphenated.
Comparative adverbs need hyphens.
The best-kept secret …
The much-loved author …
A little-known fact …
The well-advised client …
Phrases being used as an adjective (describing a noun that follows it), need hyphenation. Otherwise, there is no need.
At the end of the six o’clock news, the most up-to-date weather information is broadcast.
I watch the news to keep up to date.
In my English course, I opted to study nineteenth-century literature.
I think literature in the nineteenth century is fascinating.
She is a sixteen-year-old full-time student.
This full-time student is sixteen years old.
Adverbs ending in -ly, used as adjectives, do not need hyphens.
Giles richly deserved the award.
The richly deserved award went to Giles.
Personally, I’d cut such adverbs altogether. The verb ‘deserved’ is strong enough to make the point clear to the reader that Giles deserves the award. The only case for inclusion, maybe, would be if the word ‘richly’ were being used in an ironical fashion, questioning Giles’ right to the award.
Hyphens seem straightforward enough but, to complicate matters further, times change and words which used to be hyphenated no longer are.
This is an occasion when the publisher decides what style is to be applied: to hyphenate, or not, some words. If you are self-publishing, you can make up your own mind.
There are so many exceptions and inconsistencies, this is one topic where I’d advise writers to check with a recognised source, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules or The Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors.
I’d also recommend you set up your own style sheet, and write in the words you decide to hyphenate (or not) so that you can apply your style consistently throughout the manuscript. This style sheet is also helpful for any editor you employ (who may have differing views on hyphenation).
The bottom line with hyphens?
If a word works without a hyphen and there is no chance of the reader stumbling, leave the hyphen out. Refer to a dictionary if you’re not sure.
Uninvited hyphens on the page
Finally, having made all your decisions as to which words have hyphens and which ones don’t, additional hyphens might appear, both in written texts and ebooks, without the writer’s expectation, and this happens where the text is fully justified.
- With ebooks, the reader can turn this option off.
- The net result is that the text is spread across the available line length.
- With written texts, the style is usually to split words on a syllable break, and to avoid having hyphens appearing on any two consecutive line endings.
To avoid these, consider not using full justification!