Hyphens – use of.

I’m quite partial to hyphens – often using them instead of commas. But should I? Frequently, when I read over a first draft of something I’ve just written, I will remove many of the hyphens scattered throughout, and replace them with commas or full-stops. They felt right when I was tapping away adding – in my opinion – pace and intimacy. But, on reading with a critical eye, their over-use would start to irritate. Time – perhaps – to check out when and how they should be used.

A spelling guide, written a few years ago in conjunction with the Oxford University Press, states that there are no hard and fast rules about using hyphens (though your publisher may have a style preference), so the following points are for guidance only.

You can use a hyphen to:

Join two or more words to make a compound noun that is different in meaning from the words on their own – pick-me-up, late-comer

  • To make a compound adjective – ham-fisted, well-known.
  • A compound adjective can describe a compound noun – a well-known pick-me-up.
  • To differentiate meaning – your mother’s aunt is your great-aunt but she may also be a great aunt when it comes to thoughtful Christmas presents.
  • When you use a phrasal verb (such as in the phrase to build up your pension) as a noun – as in the build-up of traffic.
  • When you use two nouns to form a verb – to date-stamp.
  • To join a prefix ending in a vowel to another word starting with one – neo-woman-lying-on-sofaImpressionism (unlike neoclassicism). Though there are exceptions – most people now write cooperation rather than co-operation.
  • To avoid confusion – You might want to recover from the flu while lying on a sofa you have recently re-covered.
  • As part of a list, to save repeating a word – two-, three-, fourfold.
  • Some numbers – thirty-one (but not thirteen or three hundred)

You can also use one as a precursor to an example, or a short list, within a sentence. See my use above – or is it just me that does that?

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