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A hyphen ( -, or ) is a punctuation mark. It is used both to join words and to separate syllables. It is often confused with a dash ( , , ), which is longer and has a different function. Hyphenation is the use of hyphens.

Rules and customs of usage

A definitive collection of hyphen rules does not exist. Therefore, the writer or editor should consult a manual of style or dictionary of his or her preference, particularly for the country in which they are writing. The rules of style that apply to dashes and hyphens have evolved to support ease of reading in complex constructions; editors often accept deviations from them that will support, rather than hinder, ease of reading.

  • Spaces should not be placed between a hyphen and either of the words it connects except when using a suspended hyphen (e.g. nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers—see below).
  • Except for noun–noun and adverb–adjective compound modifiers, when a compound modifier appears before a term, the compound modifier is generally hyphenated to prevent any possible misunderstanding, such as American-football player. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether American applies to football or player. Compound modifiers can extend to three or more words, as in ice-cream-flavored candy.
  • Hyphens are generally not used in noun–noun or adverb–adjective compound modifiers when no such confusion is possible; for example:
    • government standards organization and department store manager
    • wholly owned subsidiary and quickly moving vehicle (because the adverbs clearly modify the adjectives; quickly obviously does not apply to vehicle as quickly vehicle would be meaningless).
  • Hyphenation is also common with adjective–noun compound modifiers but, arguably, less generally. Examples are real-world example and left-handed catch. Where the adjective–noun phrase would be plural standing alone, it usually becomes singular and hyphenated when modifying another noun. For example, four days becomes four-day week.
  • Two-word names of numbers less than one hundred are hyphenated. For instance, the number 23 should be written twenty-three, and 123 should be written one hundred and twenty-three. (The and is sometimes omitted in America)
  • Hyphens are occasionally used to denote syllabification, as in syl-lab-i-fi-ca-tion. Most American dictionaries use an interpunct, sometimes called a "middle dot" or "hyphenation point", for this purpose, as in syl·lab·i·fi·ca·tion. Similarly, hyphens may be used to imply the spelling of a word, such as "W-O-R-D spells word."
  • Hyphens are sometimes used in English to denote syllable breaks, particularly for prefixes, as when a (repeated) vowel is pronounced on its own rather than being silent or merged in a diphthong, as in 'shell-like' and 'anti-intellectual', where some other languages (and some English authorities) use a diaeresis like 'noël'. In British English, hyphens are also occasionally employed where readers would otherwise be tempted into a mispronunciation (e.g. co-worker is so punctuated partly to prevent the reader's eye being caught automatically by the word cow—though see also the following note on prefixes).
  • Certain prefixes (co-, pre-, mid-, de-, non-, anti-, etc.) are often hyphenated, though usage varies between American and British English. British English tends towards hyphenation (pre-school, co-worker) whereas American English tends towards omission of the hyphen (preschool, coworker). The AP Stylebook provides further information on the use of "co-" as a prefix.
  • Some words are hyphenated to distinguish them from other words that would otherwise be homographs, such as "recreation" (fun or sport) and "re-creation" (in forensics), or "predate" (what a predator does) and "pre-date" (to be of an earlier calendar date).
  • If a word begins on one line of text and continues into the following line, a hyphen is usually inserted immediately before the split. Note that the details of doing this properly are complex and language-dependent and that they interact with other typesetting practices: see justification and hyphenation algorithm.
  • Some married couples compose a new surname (sometimes referred to as a double-barrelled name) for their new family by combining their two surnames with a hyphen. Jane Doe and John Smith might become Jane and John Smith-Doe, or Doe-Smith, for instance. In some countries, however, only the woman hyphenates her birth surname, appending her husband's surname.
  • Hyphens are used to connect numbers and words, whether numerals or written out, as in 28-year-old woman (cf. twenty-eight-year-old woman) or 320-foot wingspan, in forming adjectival phrases (particularly with weights and measures). The SI recommends against this practice when using metric units.
  • They are also used in spelled-out fractions as adjectives (but not as nouns), such as 'two-thirds majority' and 'one-eighth portion'.
  • A suspended hyphen (also referred to as a "hanging hyphen" or "dangling hyphen") may be used when a single base word is being used with separate but back-to-back hyphenated words that are themselves connected by "and", "or", or "to". "Nineteenth-century and twentieth-century" can instead be written "nineteenth- and twentieth-century".

The use of the hyphen has, in general, been steadily declining, both in popular writing and in scholarly journals. Its use is almost always avoided by those who write for newspapers, for advertising copy or for labels on packaging, since they are often more concerned with visual cleanliness than semantic clarity; the words are left with spaces. However, it is still used in most (American) newspapers and magazines; hence, people remain accustomed to seeing and understanding its use. In other countries hyphens are dropped in favour of connecting the two-word compounds.

An en dash ('–') sometimes replaces the hyphen in hyphenated compounds if either of its constituent parts is already hyphenated or contains a space (e.g. high-priority–high-pressure tasks (tasks which are both high-priority and high-pressure).

Examples of usage

Some strong examples of semantic changes caused by the placement of hyphens:

  • disease-causing poor nutrition, meaning poor nutrition that causes disease
  • disease causing poor nutrition, meaning a disease that causes poor nutrition
  • a man-eating shark is a carnivorous fish
  • a man eating shark is a male human in the active process of consuming a shark

Additional examples of proper use:

  • text-only document or the document is text-only
  • Detroit-based organization or the organization is Detroit-based
  • state-of-the-art product or the product is state-of-the-art (but The state of the art is very advanced. with no hyphen)
  • board-certified strategy or the strategy is board-certified
  • thought-provoking argument or the argument is thought-provoking
  • time-sensitive error or the error is time-sensitive
  • case-sensitive password or the password is case-sensitive
  • government-issued photo ID or the photo ID is government-issued (but …is issued by the government with no hyphen.)
  • light-gathering surface or the surface is light-gathering
  • award-winning novel or the novel is award-winning (but, more likely, …won an award with no hyphen)
  • web-based encyclopedia or the encyclopedia is web-based
  • fun-loving person or the person is fun-loving
  • how to wire-transfer funds
  • how to tax-plan
  • advertising-supported service or service is advertising-supported (but, better, …is supported by advertising with no hyphen.)
  • Rudolph Giuliani is an Italian-American (but see hyphenated American)
  • list of China-related topics …list of topics is China-related (but …related to China with no hyphen)
  • out-of-body experience
  • near-death experience
  • in surnames, for example Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Hyphen" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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