The Hyphen Story

Hyphen – two main uses

Unlike you, my esteemed reader, the hyphen isn’t complicated at all. This unassuming little mark has two main uses:

  • to mark divisions within words

  • to prevent misinterpretation (however momentary such misinterpretation may be).

The hyphen puts in an appearance:

  • with compounds: runner-up, lift-off, passer-by, open-minded [attitude], parent-teacher [association], five-year-old [boy], on-the-spot [fine], little-used [car], healthy-schools [coordinator]

  • after prefixes: un-English, pre-school, ex-wife, non-standard, co-op, re-form

  • to divide words at the end of a line of print (self-explanatory).

It is the second use of the hyphen that is particularly important: the last thing you want is to confuse your readers. For example, if your sofa is covered again, it is re-covered rather than recovered, if your flat is leased again, it is re-leased rather than released, and if your team is disbanded and formed again, it is re-formed rather than reformed. Misinterpretation is particularly rife with pre-modifying compounds (a man eating shark OR a man-eating shark?). The story below has been inspired by two whoppers I came across in The Sunday Times, similar lapses being very common – if perhaps not quite as funny.


Sorry, Dave, you have already seen the story itself, although this is an updated version.


The Hyphen Story


The sun burst in through the bay window, its rays bringing out the pinkness of the hydrangeas tastefully arranged on the table and playing tricks with her friend’s hair, making it appear even blonder than it really was.

At her age, she should have started going grey, Sheila reflected, a tad grudgingly. Her own hair was well on the way to complete whiteness, and even though she was sorely tempted to restore it to the colour of her youth, she worried that such a blatant manifestation of vanity might not sit well with her exalted position in the community. She was President of the local Pickle-Appreciation Society, after all. And Chairwoman of the Knitting-for-Peace Association. Not to mention Convener of the Marmalade-Muffin Fellowship, of course. So she couldn’t risk succumbing to frivolities such as dyeing her hair, could she? Wouldn’t it be better, though, if everybody got greying at a similar age? After all, both she and Clare were in their early sixties, yet you’d need a magnifying glass to spot a white hair on Clare’s head.

“More tea?” asked Clare, lifting her best china teapot in an anticipatory gesture.

“Yes please, darling. Marvellous tea.” Clearly, it wasn’t nearly as good as the one she herself makes, Sheila thought, but she did appreciate the effort her friend was pouring into their fortnightly get-togethers – even though the cakes were invariably purchased rather than baked at home. But what could you reasonably expect of a grammarian? And a lonely one at that? While they were both widowed, at least Sheila had her three wonderful children – especially wonderful now that they have all left home. And eight enchanting grandchildren. Well, obviously not enchanting all the time, but the best thing was that, at the end of a delightful but exhausting day, you could hand them back to their parents. And whom did Clare have? No children, no siblings, rattling round in her large house with only grammar for company. What sort of life was that? For a brief moment, Sheila contemplated suggesting that they should up the frequency of their meetings to once weekly, but sanity prevailed, and she stopped herself – albeit at the very last moment. After all, she always made an effort to come up with a riveting topic for conversation, didn’t she? So let’s not go over the top: it’s quality – not quantity.

“The mystery; I must tell you about this mystery, darling.”

“What mystery is that, Sheila?”

“With this gay bar owner.”

What gay bar owner?”

“In Manhattan. My cousin’s just written: her friend is at sixes and sevens.”

“Why is that?”

“Apparently, my cousin’s friend’s grandson – this gay bar owner – has just got engaged.”

“So? Don’t they have same-sex marriage in the States? Same as we do?”

“That’s just it: he got engaged to a female. My cousin writes that she is an adult film actress – look.” Sheila handed her friend a neatly written letter (they weren’t into all this e-mail nonsense; there is nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned epistle), which confirmed her bulletin.

“Well, some gay people do get married to partners of the opposite gender. For all sorts of reasons.”

“Apparently, he’d got her up the duff.”

“But … but didn’t … didn’t you say he was gay?”

“Well, that’s what she wrote – look.”

“I can see, I can see.”

“It all sounds highly fishy, if you ask me.”

“Hmm … At least his fiancé is an adult: let’s hope she knows what she’s letting herself in for.”

“But that’s just it: apparently, she’s just seventeen – hardly an adult.”

“I see … ”

“And what I can’t work out is why his family are disgusted by her profession.”

“Are they really? If you ask me, that’s a bit old-fashioned. After all, acting has been respectable for a long time. I didn’t know that Americans could be so narrow-minded.”

“You wouldn’t think so, would you, darling? Not with all those Hollywood studios and that. I can’t quite get my head round it, to tell you the truth.”

“Just a sec, just a sec, maybe … maybe what’s missing there is the hyphen.”

“A high what, darling?”

“No, no: a hyphen.”

“If you ask me, darling, what’s missing there is a sense of perspective.”

“No, no, no, I mean a hyphen in ‘a gay-bar owner’ and ‘an adult-film actress’. You just use this sign – like a short dash – to create a pre-modifying compound to prevent misinterpretation.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely! You see, a gay-bar owner – with a hyphen – may not necessarily be gay himself, and an adult-film actress – again, with a hyphen – may not actually be an adult.”

Sheila gave her friend a look infused with a mixture of doubt and incomprehension. “Well, there were no high … high … no short dashes there – you saw yourself.”

“I know, I know, and that’s exactly the problem.”

“You think that is the problem?”

“Absolutely! You see, the absence of the hyphen can be genuinely misleading. And funny. Just compare ‘a little used car’ with ‘a little-used car’, ‘a hard drug user’ with ‘a hard-drug user’, ‘a small business owner’ with ‘a small-business owner’, ‘a dirty joke teller’ with ‘a dirty-joke teller, ‘a short course director’ with ‘a short-course director’, ‘a real estate broker’ with ‘a real-estate broker’, ‘a popular music station’ with ‘a popular-music station’, ‘real ale enthusiasts’ with ‘real-ale enthusiasts’, ‘a black cab driver’ with ‘a black-cab driver’ – you can actually hear the hyphen there. I have harvested hundreds of examples with the missing hyphen, hundreds!”

Sheila looked at her – now unhealthily animated – friend with barely disguised pity. How could she possibly have entertained weekly get-togethers? Much as she loved Clare, her obsession with grammar was, clearly, abnormal, and her grammatical expositions were unendurable to any well-balanced human being.

“Gosh, is that the time already, darling? I’m afraid I must dash: these annual general meetings of Knitting for Peace are an awful bore, they really are, but one tries to do one’s best for one’s community. You must tell me all about this high thingy next time – you ABSOLUTELY MUST!”


6 thoughts on “The Hyphen Story

  1. I love this. My editor and I are constantly going back and forth about the proper use of hyphens. I’m sending this on to her now!


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