Hyphens are probably one of an editor’s most notorious nemeses. It can be straight-up confusing to use them. (I know a couple copy editors who are complete sticklers for proper hyphen usage. It’s their “editorial nitpick,” the thing the home in on right away.)

If editors don’t know how and when to use hyphens half the time, what chance do the rest of us have? It turns out that hyphenation, as convoluted and confusing as it can be, does have a few straight-forward rules you can follow.

Why Do We Use Hyphens?

Let’s start with the basics. A hyphen is used to stick two words together. In fact, it acts as a kind of glue, cementing the words to each other so the reader parses them as one unit. If there’s a chance the reader might mistakenly read the words as two separate units and produce a coherent-but-incorrect meaning, you want to use a hyphen.

Basically, using a hyphen makes your meaning perfectly clear for the reader. They’d have to wilfully misinterpret your writing to misunderstand. Since good writing is about eliminating ambiguities (in most instances), hyphens are a good thing.

If you keep this simple rule in mind, you’ll rarely go wrong.

Of course, this being English and all, it gets worse from there.

Open, Hyphenated, and Closed Compounds

See, English has this nasty habit of … evolving over time. Most of the time, hyphenation happens when a compound word is introduced to the lexicon. It might be written open at first (that is, without a hyphen). However, authors want to make it very clear how the reader should read the term, so they start hyphenating it. Eventually, a bunch of young, hip people wonder why the word is being hyphenated and simply mush the words together.

That’s how we get things like this:

snow ball -> snow-ball -> snowball

We’d think anyone writing “snow-ball” today was strange, but that’s how the Victorians wrote it. Eventually, however, the word became common enough that writing it with the hyphen was viewed as being outmoded and unnecessary.

Don’t believe me? Some people used to hyphenate the word on-line. Same with log-in. E-mail also used to carry a hyphen. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, still lists “e-mail” as its preferred spelling. Today, however, most dictionaries recommend the closed form. And most people under a particular age would look at you pretty funny if you wrote “I’m going on-line to log-in to my e-mail.”

There’s an exception to this: where closing the compound makes it difficult to read. This usually happens when there’s vowels involved. It’s one reason some people still write “co-ordination” instead of “coordination.” The double “o” is considered more difficult to parse. Over time, the perceived difficulty might disappear. We can read “coordination” and “cooperation” just as easily as “co-ordination” and “co-operation” these days.

A good rule of thumb: If it looks strange or difficult to read when it’s closed, pop the hyphen back in.

More Exceptions for Hyphenation “Rules”

More exceptions abound, of course. My favorite bugaboo is the hyphenation of adverbs with the words you modify. The Victorians did this, on the basis of making it easier for the reader to see the words were to be read as one unit. Most people today agree that this is old-fashioned and unnecessary. We’re smart enough to realize that the adverb goes with the verb. Ambiguity isn’t a problem, so you don’t need to put the hyphen in there.

A person ins a light-coloured dress with a ruffled top sits with an open book in their lap.
“Oh my.” — anyone looking at how the romantics used punctuation. (cottonbro / Pexels.com)

An example would be “evenly distributed grades.” In theory, we could read “evenly” and “distributed” as two separate units. If we wanted perfect clarity, we’d write “evenly-distributed grades.” The reader then has to read “evenly distributed” as one descriptor, modifying the noun “grades.”

Yet I’m hard pressed to think of another way to read “evenly distributed grades.” It seems fairly clear to me from the context “evenly” is modifying “distributed,” which in turn describes “grades.” The grades are distributed. How are they distributed? Evenly.

It is very rare that this kind of construction will need to take a hyphen to prevent misreading.

Not Sure How to Use Hyphens? Look It Up

Now the real fun starts! Virtually every dictionary makes different recommendations about what to hyphenate, what to close, and what to leave open. So what you hyphenate will depend on the dictionary you’re using. I mentioned CanOx, which hasn’t been updated since 2004, recommends “e-mail.” Merriam-Webster recommends “email,” although “e-mail” is listed as a variant.

Different publishers and editors will follow different dictionaries. Different markets may have different expectations too. A tech magazine won’t want to use “e-mail” because they’ll look outmoded and old-fashioned. That’s not what you want when you’re supposed to be on the cutting edge of today’s technology. Similarly, an online publication aimed at tweens and teens will likely use “email,” rather than “e-mail,” again to avoid looking too “old.”

A young woman looks at her phone with some irritation. She may have wished whoever she's chatting with had asked "how do you use hyphens."
“I bet the person writing this is a millennial with a side part too.” (mentatdgt / Pexels.com)

A publisher may have their own internal guidelines, which will include some directions on hyphenation. One unfortunate problem is these style guides may not be updated very often, which can lead to house style guides being sent out in 2021 still recommending 2002 standards.

Many publishers also reference other style guides, such as the Associated Press style guide. Chicago Manual of Style is a favorite among editors, and it makes plenty of recommendations about when to hyphenate and when not to hyphenate. But guess what? It’s not the only style guide on the block—and other style guides have their own recommendations for hyphenation.

It can be a confusing mess.

How Do You Use Hyphens: Three Rules of Thumb

The general guidelines here should steer you through most hyphenation situations, but you may need additional guidance, and you’ll likely run into pedantic folks who tell you otherwise. Three good rules of thumb for hyphenation?

  1. Look it up. If you’re not sure, pick a resource—any resource, really—and adopt their recommendation.
  2. Be consistent. If you spell it “email,” keep it “email.” Don’t add the hyphen in. In many cases, hyphenation isn’t wrong per se, but neither is a closed/open form. Being inconsistent, however, is a major faux pas.
  3. Be sure you need it for clarity. If there’s little to no ambiguity in the sentence, you probably don’t need a hyphen.

Using hyphens doesn’t need to be as complicated as it seems at first glance. If you do find yourself confounded, don’t be afraid to use the resources at your disposal. A style guide, a dictionary, a Google search, and even an editor’s advice are all close at hand.