By Jackie Barrie, Copywriter, Trainer & Author at Comms Plus

Sometimes, two words combine to become one. For example, ‘weekend’ used to be ‘week-end’ and before that ‘the week’s end’.

There is no one day in the diary when people all around the world decide, “OK today’s the day when we’ll add a hyphen!” or “Right, everybody, that hyphen’s got to go, we’re joining those two words together now!”

‘Heart-warming’ is one of those words in transition. One day, it will become ‘heartwarming’. Both forms are currently correct. So are ‘co-operation’ and ‘cooperation’. And ‘orang-utan’ and ‘orangutan’!

Whether or not you choose to hyphenate these evolving words will depend on your house style. There’s no worldwide* right or wrong — just be consistent in your own writing.

Note that some word-pairs go the other way e.g. ‘Pot belly’ and ‘fig leaf’ used to be hyphenated, and tend not to be now.

Avoiding confusion

Hyphens are important to distinguish between a ‘man-eating shark’ (a shark that eats men) and a ‘man eating shark’ (a man that eats sharks).

Compare these statements:

- Three-hundred-year-old trees: an indeterminate number of trees that are 300 years old

- Three hundred-year-old trees: three trees that are 100 years old

- Three-hundred year-old trees: 300 trees that are one year old

Note that you don’t use hyphens for ages after the noun. So you would write: ‘the one-year-old baby’ or ‘the baby that’s one year old’.

Justified text

Hyphens at the end of a line are useful in narrow or justified columns, to allow smoother right-hand margins and avoid ‘rivers’ of white space between words. But I’m not a fan of automatic hyphenation as offered by word processing programs because you can end up with words like the-rapist instead of therapist! It’s better to use your common-sense* and only add hyphens when you want them.

Compound modifiers

You need hyphens to make compound modifiers such as ‘The 60-year-old man punched the security guard’, ‘Our industry-leading experts can advise you’, and ‘Our delicious raspberry-flavoured ice-cream’.

Words ending in -ly

You don’t need a hyphen for words ending in —ly, so ‘The quickly moving lorries’ is fine without a hyphen, but you’d write ‘The fast-moving lorries’ with a hyphen.

Hanging hyphens

A hanging hyphen is used where a single word is connected by two hyphenated preceding words e.g. ‘part- and full-time staff’, or ‘nineteenth- and twentieth-century’.

Em-dash and en-dash

While on the subject of hyphens, let me quickly explain the en-dash and em-dash. These wonderful printing terms relate to a short dash that’s the width of an N or a wider dash the width of an M (both are wider than the humble hyphen).

- The en-dash is commonly used to separate numbers e.g. 1960s—1970s. It has no space either side.

- The em-dash is use to separate thoughts (like brackets) e.g. ‘Little Red Riding Hood — on her way to Grandma’s house — stopped for a chat with the woodman in the forest.’ There is a space on each side.

* These variations are also OK: ‘world-wide’ and ‘commonsense’

Jackie Barrie writes without waffle for websites, blogs, newsletters, brochures, leaflets and speeches, in fact, anything to help your company make more money. She is the author of ‘The Little Fish Guide to DIY Marketing’ and ‘The Little Fish Guide to Networking’.

Find out more at www.comms-plus.co.uk or 0845 899 0258.