Usage of Hyphen in English

When is it correct to use a Hyphen?

Usage of Hyphen in English is highly variable and in many contexts, it really doesn't matter. The Fowler brothers, first editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, wrote in their preface to the 1911 edition:

We have also to admit that after trying hard at an early stage to arrive at some principle that should teach us when to separate, when to hyphen and when to unite the parts of compound words, we had to abandon the attempt as hopeless and welter in the prevailing chaos.

The places where it does matter are summarized in the Oxford Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage (2004).

The most important being :

1. to make clear the unifying of the sense in compound expressions such as punch-drunk, cost-benefit analysis or weight-carrying or compounds in attributive use (that is, in front of the noun) as in an up-to-date list or the well-known performer

2. to join a prefix to a proper name (e.g. anti-Darwinian)

3. to avoid misunderstanding by distinguishing phrases such as twenty-odd people and twenty odd people or a third-world conflict and a third world conflict

4. to clarify the use of a prefix as in recovering from an illness and re-covering an umbrella

5. to clarify compounds with similar adjacent sounds such as sword-dance, co-opt, tool-like

6. to represent the use of a common element in a list of compounds such as four-, six- and eight-legged animals

7. in dividing a word across a line-break

Guidance on word division is given in reference books such as the Oxford Colour Spelling Dictionary (1996).

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