Published: 28th February 2017
Where and why to use hyphenations
How to use hyphenations in sentences to avoid simple but context changing mistakes
What is the difference in meaning between these two phrases: i) hazardous-waste management and ii) hazardous waste management? In the first phrase ‘hazardous-waste management’, the waste is hazardous. In the second phrase ‘hazardous waste management’, the management of the waste is hazardous. It is the hyphen (-) that makes the difference.
Certain compound words are hyphenated in order to kill ambiguity. Let us consider two examples. What is the difference between i) a small scale industry and ii) a small-scale industry? The first phrase refers to an industry that deals with scales (bony plates protecting the skin of fish and reptiles) is small and the second phrase refers to the industry that is of limited or small in scope. Similarly, ‘a small-print paper’ is different in meaning from ‘a small print paper’.
It has been observed that even those who write without grammatical mistakes while communicating in English are not sure whether to hyphenate or to drop hyphens in compound words. Hyphens are used in many compound words to show the hyphenated words have a combined meaning. Examples of hyphenated words: brother-in-law, editor-in-chief, vice-chancellor, merry-go-round, and well-known.
The first known documentation of the hyphen is in the grammatical works of Dionysius Thrax. At the time hyphenation was joining two words that would otherwise be read separately by a low tie mark between the two words. In Greek, these marks were known as emotikon, officially romanised as a hyphen
A compound adjective is a two-or-more word combination which modifies a noun. When these words are placed before a noun and act as a single idea, they are hyphenated. According to the Texas Law Review Manual of Style, “When two or more words are combined to form a modifier immediately preceding a noun, join the words by hyphens if doing so will significantly aid the reader in recognizing the compound adjective.” Examples of compound adjectives are: state-of-the-art design, on-campus recruitment, a two-seater car, a part-time job, a take-home assignment, and small-scale industries. When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen is not necessary. Example:
- The vice-chancellor’s office is on campus.
- He studies part time.
The combination of an adverb and an adjective does not create a compound adjective. In such combinations, a hyphen is not required to join the words because it is clear that the adverb modifies the adjective rather than the noun that follows. In the example ‘badly written article’, the adverb ‘badly’ modifies the adjective ‘written’ rather than the noun ‘article’.- He is a brilliantly awesome trainee.
Hyphens are used with numbers when a number and a measurement unit taken together function as an adjective. Examples: a 100-foot road, an 8-hour shift, a 500-rupee note, a 5-day match, a 2-day conference, a 100-page novel and a 3-hour exam. When these measures do not function as adjectives, hyphens are not used as in this example: - The match was played for 5 days.