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