Why do we hyphenate some words and not others? Is it the death of the hyphen? Not quite yet.
In 2019, some AP Stylebook updates caused an uproar in the editing world – and it’s always funny when writers riot (check out Twitter if you don’t believe me).
The uproar was because the AP editors reduced the number of words they recommend have a hyphen and said the English language changes over time.
After all, we don’t put a hyphen on “e-mail” anymore, do we?
So here’s a few guidelines you can follow – and I stress that they are guidelines, not rules…
1. Use hyphens for compound words
Where two words make one idea (compound words), and that one idea is an adjective (a describing word), keep your hyphen.
e.g. Many well-known celebrities live in Australia, and their award-winning movies and TV shows provide world-leading entertainment. Hopefully, they don’t earn tax-free income, because everyone needs to pay tax. That’s what my sister-in-law says, anyway, and she works full-time as an in-house music teacher.
2. No hyphens on prefixes
Prefixes like the “dis” in “disadvantage” don’t usually get a hyphen, because they’re not a full word on their own.
3. No hyphens on words in languages other than English
If it’s not English, don’t add a hyphen unless that language has hyphens in their alphabet.
For example, the phrase pro rata is Latin, not English, so even when you’re using it as an adjective, you don’t hyphenate it.
e.g. Good companies should offer pro rata fees, so that if you’re not with the company for the whole year, you don’t pay the full annual fee.
Similarly, taekwon do is Korean, so you shouldn’t really put a hyphen in it, like “taekwon-do”.
4. No hyphens on adverbs
If the words end in “LY” you don’t need the hyphen because the first word in the compound phrase is being used as an adverb.
Phew, we’re getting nerdy now, aren’t we?
e.g. An easily remembered rule does not need a hyphen between easily and remembered.
5. Use hyphens on word clusters or unclear phrases
If the words are a noun or adjective cluster (lots of nouns or adjectives in a row), or not a normal phrase, or the meaning might not be perfectly clear otherwise, keep the hyphen.
e.g. I hyphenate many open-minded philosophies (adjective cluster), but not when it comes to climate change realities (noun cluster, but a normal phrase). Because everyone knows about climate change by now.
(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you repost/share, thanks!