To hyphen or not to hyphen

A hyphen (-) is that little horizontal line between words. In a quick nutshell, its primary uses are to join two words in order to show that they are grammatically linked or have a combined meaning, and to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line. But this article is about the-little-horizontal-line between words.



Let me start with Shakespeare, seeing as how I ‘misappropriated’ a line from Hamlet for my heading. William created the most unique compound words by inserting a hyphen, some of which have even crept into modern English. Consider ‘fancy-free’ and ‘lack-lustre’. Then there are the words he concocted around the word ‘knave’ (a naughty boy); ‘bacon-fed knaves’, ‘flap-ear’d knave’ and ‘malmsey-nose knave’. The reason for this trip down memory lane is to show you that the-little-horizontal-line-between-words has an illustrious history.

Unfortunately, it seems as if this history is soon coming to an end. The hyphen does not garner the respect it used to. Its name comes from the Greek, meaning ‘together’ or ‘in one’, which is exactly what it does; it joins two words together in order to create a new word. In the era we live in where ‘new’ is better, one would think a tool like this would be appreciated!



Our little word has been used by important people in a rather derogatory fashion. Winston Churchill said that ‘One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible.’ And it is believed that Woodrow Wilson called the hyphen ‘…the most un-American thing in the world.’ (We shall ignore the hyphen used in ‘un-American’.) That stalwart of dictionaries, Oxford, has dismissed our little line from thousands of words over the last few years.



At least for now the hyphen still has a place. It has been admitted that it is able to avoid ambiguity. Look at this sentence: ‘The half-clothed man is walking down the street.’ We immediately understand that the guy is only wearing half his clothes. Then, alter the sentence like this: ‘The half clothed man is walking down the street.’ Oh dear, now it is only half a man, although fully clothed, that we have to watch! And so the examples can go on and on.


The future

By ‘the future’ of the hyphen, I mean the internet and technology. Allow me to list a few typical examples of hyphenated words we see every day:

  • call-to-action (CTA)
  • email; this word used to have a hyphen, e-mail. But it seems we have ‘progressed’.
  • social-networking; when used as an adjective
  • pay-per-click (PPC)


These are only a few cases, but it appears to me that the-little-horizontal-line-between-words is after all not quite ready to disappear…


‘This morning I deleted the hyphen from “hell-bound” and made it one word; this afternoon I redivided [sic] it and restored the hyphen.’ – Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hyphens; linking words together

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