Did you hear the one about the pickled onion-seller? He was too drunk to give the right change.
Or the cross channel ferry? It was always barging other boats out of the way.
Or the company with 500 odd employees? Each one had a quirk.
Yes, we’re talking hyphens.
A teeny little punctuation mark, yet commanding the power to reverse meaning and confuse the mighty.
Consider the following.
First let me ask you these three questions:
1 Are you married?
2 Are you in favour of extra marital sex?
3 How about extra-marital sex?
Hyphens have a couple of very specific jobs to do. The easier to understand is their use in ranges of quantities or times:
I have 15-25 clients at any one time.
We always have 100-200 different cheeses in stock.
In 2005-2013 I was a champion surfboard maker.
It’s a neat way of tightening up writing since you can avoid such circumlocutions as between the years 2005 and 2013 or character-hungry expressions as we have 100 to 200 cheeses in stock.
Very useful for tweets and AdWords.
Their more interesting function is in tying words together.
They do this for a number of reasons.
Take a word like toothbrush.
When the toothbrush was invented, in Tang Dynasty China, it was a brush for teeth. A tooth brush. Then as its use became increasingly common, it would have been hyphenated to tooth-brush, the hyphen acting as a scarf tying two kids together in a three-legged race to keep them in step and together. Finally, as the word became fully assimilated into everyday speech the hyphen evaporated leaving a neologism: toothbrush.
See also cut throat razor -> cut-throat razor -> cutthroat razor.
There is a lot of confusion around phrases like a well-executed painting. Or an ill-considered trifle.
Generally, the hyphen is unnecessary if the meaning is unambiguous without it. This goes for all punctuation really.
But if ambiguity exists eg an ill dressed model, then the hyphen is our best friend, making it clear to our reader whether we have an unwell, clothed model or a slovenly but otherwise healthy model.
Compound adjectives, like greenish-blue, also take a hyphen, for much the same reason.
Compound noun/adjective phrases
Big corporations are often Johnny-come-latelys to the world of content marketing.
Her writing has a devil-take-the-hindmost quality to it.
These are fine but be careful not to overdo it, as there is an mannered feel to those I-have-a-word-in-mind-but-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-think-about-what-it-might-be uses.
Commerce, like the languages through which it’s conducted, is a living thing. So from time to time it comes up with a concept for which it needs a name.
Retailers wishing customers to venture across the threshold used, once upon a time, to say, “come inside” (if they said anything at all).
But with the advent of e-tailing, and the shift of much shopping to the web, the idea of visiting, much less entering, a bricks-and-mortar establishment began to seem almost quaint.
Hence the arrival on our linguistic shores of “in store”. As in,
Details of our new offer in store. (in (the) store)
As marketeers developed a raft of practices with this arena in mind, in store begat in-store as in,
This led, inevitably, to instore marketing, which is ugly and ahead of the reader’s cultural understanding of the hyphenated term.
Worse, it began to be used as a preposition:
Where we are now, the usage should be like this:
In an instruction:
Learn more in store
As an adjective:
Our in-store marketing is successfully winning new customers.
However, as it’s a ghastly example of marketing jargon barging its way out of PowerPoint presentations and into the public arena, I’d advocate using inside as a simple and more readily understood word if speaking to ordinary people. On signs (not signage, by the way) for example.
When not to use hyphens
Hyphens do the jobs I’ve discussed so far.
They don’t replace commas, colons or any other pause-indicating punctuation. That’s what dashes are for.
There are two forms of the dash: the en-dash and the em-dash.
Here’s how to tell them apart.
You can use dashes to enclose a parenthetical expression, replacing commas:
He’s a great – though not a brilliant – writer.
To introduce a payoff, replacing a colon:
She’s a great copywriter – she sells.
Or to introduce an amplifying, illustrative or explanatory sentence, replacing a semi-colon:
They are great copywriters – but then, with their training, they should be.
Or even to indicate more to come, replacing ellipsis points:
He’s a better copywriter now, but—
Whether you choose en-dashes or em-dashes is up to you or your house style guide, but like oil and water, they don’t mix.
So there you have it, hyphens and dashes: not maids-of-all-work at all—specialist servants like grooms or wine-waiters.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at our definitive guide to apostrophes.