The silent and steady demise of the hyphen is one of my pet peeves. Many people seem to believe that it makes no difference whether or not hyphens are used. However, as with all punctuation, the hyphen can be used to make your work more readable. Hyphens not only assist in avoiding ambiguity and preventing misreading but are also important in creating flow and rhythm in your writing.

Hyphens in compound words

You may need a hyphen if you are teaming two or more words which together carry a new meaning. The simplest and most neglected use of the hyphen is the compound adjective containing two adjectives (like this ‘two-word adjective’). It is amazing (and frustrating for every pedant) that Hollywood spends millions producing films and running promotional campaigns but spares itself the trouble of correct punctuation: consider the titles Rabbit Proof Fence (Rabbit-Proof Fence), 24 Hour Photo (24-Hour Photo) and 40 Year Old Virgin (40-Year-Old Virgin).

Note that where the compound adjective includes an adverb ending in ly, you need not hyphenate it (as in ‘a recently refurbished apartment’).

The Commonwealth Government’s Style Manual details some very technical rules for hyphenating compound nouns but notes that those rules are not universal. What’s a writer to do? Be consistent, and read your work aloud. Many compound nouns are unhyphenated (‘bookmaker’, ‘black market’ and ‘widespread’, for instance) but most people appreciate that words such as ‘make-up’ and ‘cabinet-maker’ look and read better if you insert a hyphen rather than fusing or completely separating the words.

I once received a leaflet in the mail headed ‘Stage 3 Water Restrictions’, which informed me that ‘even numbered houses can water their gardens every second day.’ Aside from the odd idea of a house watering its garden, in the absence of a hyphen it is correct to read this sentence to mean that the residents of not only un-numbered houses but also numbered houses were free to water their gardens every other day.

A more sober example, included in the Style Manual, is the difference between saying ‘the parents lobbied for more experienced staff’ and ‘the parents lobbied for more-experienced staff.’ It is part of your task as a writer to be alert to potential ambiguities and to prevent the reader stumbling over unclear phrases or having to re-read sentences to be sure of your meaning.

Hyphens after prefixes

You may have noticed just now that hyphens are also often used after prefixes. The hyphen in words like ‘re-read’, ‘de-emphasise’ and ‘anti-aircraft’ highlights the importance of the prefix and prevents misreading. A hyphen marks the difference between words like ‘re-creation’ and ‘recreation’ and ‘re-signed’ and ‘resigned’ and is needed where a prefix if followed by a number, a capital letter (‘un-Australian’) or an expression in italics or quotation marks.

Hyphens are not crucial in well-known terms. For example, it is acceptable to write ‘cooperate’, ‘radioactive’ and ‘email’ because these words are pervasive. However, the Style Manual recommends hyphens for ‘electronic’ words (like ‘e-book’ and ‘e-commerce’) because the ‘e prefix is so small that such words would be in danger of being misread unless the hyphen is there.’

Of course, you should be careful not to overuse hyphens. If there is no potential for confusion when reading a word or sentence, there is no need to use a hyphen—as long as you omit the hyphen consistently.

Try inserting hyphens into the advertisements pictured. In my view, the hyphens missing from these examples have the effect of slowing the reader down. The skipping rhythm created by correctly linked words makes the message easier to read, and this is reason enough to save the hyphen.


Answers (clockwise from left):

  • New barristers, same world-class experience.
  • With six-star energy-efficient villas, you’ll wish you were 55 sooner.
  • Marin 3-bike carriers: Best-selling hand-welded heavy-duty steel carrier. Popular super-heavy-duty steel. Zinc coating and scratch-proof pads for added protection.


The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 374 (December 2011–February 2012).

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