The Hyphen

The hyphen has two principal functions. It marks the syllabic division of a word between lines, and it also separates the elements of some compound words.

t> The Hyphen to Indicate Division of a Word

When separating a word between lines, you should always place the hyphen at the end of the upper line, never at the beginning of the new line. The word supper, for example, must be divided:

sup- not sup per -per

Words can be divided only between syllables. Most of us have only a hazy idea of the syllabication of many words, and it is best to consult a dictionary when you must split a word.

\> The Hyphen with Compounds

In certain compounds (two or more words treated as one) the hyphen separates the individual words. English does not treat compounds with much consistency. Some are printed as separate words (contact lens, drawing room, milk shake); some as single terms (gunboat, footlight, midships); and still others are hyphenated (gun-shy, photo-offset). Some compounds are treated differently by different writers; you cannot tell how any particular compound is conventionally written without consulting a dictionary or observing how publishers print it.

The examples we just saw are all conventional compound words. Another kind exists called the nonce compound. This is a construction, usually a modifier, made up for a specific occasion and not existing as a standard idiom. In the following sentence, the first compound is conventional; the other two are nonce expressions:

Old-fashioned, once-in-a-lifetime, till-death-do-us-part marriage. ..

Leslie Aldridge Westoff

Nonce compounds are always hyphenated.

t> Other Functions of the Hyphen

Hyphens, finally, have several special applications. When a word is spelled out in composition, the pauses which in speech would separate the letters are signaled by hyphens:

Affect is spelled a-f-f-e-c-t.

If it is necessary to cite inflectional endings or prefixes, they are preceded (or followed) by a hyphen. No space is left between the hyphen and the first or last letter of the cited term:

The regular sign of the plural in English is -s.

Anti- and un- are common prefixes, while -ence is a frequent suffix.

When several different words are understood to be commonly combined with the same final element to form compound words, hyphens are placed after each of the initial elements:

The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall. . . . Joan Didion

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