Cutting a dash

Graham Hopkins risks grammatical insanity and
offers up some guidelines on the use of hyphenation.

Two-four-six-eight, how shall we hyphenate? We
used to “hyphen” words but now we’re more likely to “hyphenate”
them. It has been said, supposedly in a style guide for the Oxford
University Press, that “if you take hyphens seriously you will
surely go mad”. But dash it all, let’s howl at the moon and offer
some guidelines (which would have been “guide-lines” before the

overarching (rather than over-arching) guide should be to use a
hyphen sparingly. Its principal use is to make things clear,
slapping ambiguity in the face. For example, note the difference
between “30-odd directors” and “30 odd directors”. Or what could be
meant by “three hundred year old trees”? A well-placed hyphen
(three hundred year-old trees), or two (three hundred-year-old
trees), or three (three-hundred-year-old trees) save us from
lumbering around for meaning. A hyphen also usefully distinguishes
between noun and verb: reform but re-form; recount but

from its other use (in publishing) to indicate that a word has been
broken at the end of a line through lack of space, all other usage
is frighteningly optional. Sometimes a hyphen is used to help with
pronunciation (de-ice, re-do). This is usually the case where two
vowels collide (pre-empt, re-establish, semi-independent), but not
always (reissue).

compound phrases (which act as one descriptive word) come before a
noun, we usually treat ourselves to a hyphen: you have up-to-date
records, but your records are up to date; you investigate something
in depth, but have an in-depth investigation. The same usually
applies to those phrases that logically could – and probably one
day will – become one word (fair-minded, last-ditch,
ill-considered, tight-fisted). Indeed, “wordprocessing” and
“subcommittee” already have (or at least they have in some
dictionaries; others will soon play catch-up). But you don’t need
to buy a first-class ticket as the phrase travels comfortably
enough without a hyphen.

hyphen’s number comes up when figures between 21 and 99 are written
out in full (“thirty-nine”). Similarly, fractions without a hyphen
can appear less than wholesome (two-thirds).

It is
over and above the call of duty to march a hyphen into compound
words beginning with “over”: overblown, overconfident. But some
dictionaries fight their quarter with over-subscribe and

doors are also closing on Hyphen & Co. Most “co” words trade
profitably without Mr Hyphen’s old fashioned ways: any coordinator
can be cooperative these days (which is overdue given that we’ve
all been uncoordinated and uncooperative for some time).

use hyphens if necessary. Apart from being consistent, there are
few hard-and-fast rules or, indeed, any hard and fast ones come to
that. And remember, to quote the regal Kingsley Amis as he surveyed
the subject, “no one is right and no-one is wrong”.

An inspector recalls

“The small resident’s dining room”; “the seven
clients have a single bedroom”; “lockable storage is provided for

From social care inspection reports. Thanks to
Anthony Martin, Devon Council

Contributions welcome. Please send them to

Mother of all books

“A definitive timely determination of the
status of a child at risk must be optimally informed by rational
formulations based on information obtained through a standardized
comprehensive methodology.”

From Conducting Parenting Capacity
Assessments: A Manual for Mental Health Practitioners. Thanks to
Penny Lloyd, BASW Cymru/Wales

Please send in examples of jargon,
gobbledygook and management-speak to


More from Community Care

Comments are closed.