The cut of your hyphen

Hyphens have been pestering me of late. You know what they are, those pesky little lines that invade the page and defy all logic. It's all good to read one (here's one right here: - ), but what do they mean? How does one use them? This is a blog entry dedicated to this little guy and where it fits in the grand punctuation of things.*

First off, don't confuse it with a dash, which is longer. In manuscripts, you write it a dash like this: --.

1. The simplest hyphen is used when avoiding ambiguity. A re-formed rock band is very different from a reformed one (or maybe not so).

2. Spelling out numbers: twenty-one. six-hundred-and-forty-two.

3. To link a noun with another noun (or adjectives with other adjectives): French-American writer. San Jose-San Diego speed train (I wish!).

4. It get tricker now. It is used in noun phrases that are used to qualify another noun. Stainless Steel, when added to your culinary annex, becomes a stainless-steel kitchen.

5. Certain traditional prefixes still get hyphenated, for better or for worse. If you don't believe me, you're un-American.

6. You can also you hyphens to spell out words. For example, E-X-A-M-P-L-E.

7. If your letters will collide, consider a hyphen. shelllike looks horrid, so try for shell-like. In fact, always use -like or -esque with their hyphens. It reads easier.

8. You can break words up and continue them onto the next line with hyphens, too. This is just like I'm a-
bout to do here.

9. Stammering is hypenated. Wh-w-w-w-what did you say?

10. I'm just going to quote this one verbatim. It's not a hard rule. 'When a hyphenated phrase is coming up, and you are qualifying it beforehand, it is necessary to write, "He was a two- or three-year-old."'

It's that rule number four that always gets me. You have to be careful so as to distinguish between "man eating bugs" and "man-eating bugs" which, trust me, you'll be glad you did, especially if the entomologist got it right as well.

Other examples that trip me up.
It was well written. vis-à-vis It was a well-written piece. (Zut!)
Don't go off half cocked. vis-à-vis He was a half-cocked kind of guy. (Blarg!)

* Props to Lynn Truss for making this easier by publishing the ever-witty "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" and thereby obviating the need to trudge through wads of boring grammars.


At 3/4/06, 9:48 PM, Blogger Christine said...

m vs n dash--fun times for saturday night.


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