Archive: April 7th, 2008

MM: Hyphenation


Back in February (yes, I’m late), Peter asked:

I would like to know when you are allowed to use the hyphen (”-”). I tend to use it pretty often – like now – and I’m wondering if it is proper use. I also get confused when two words are joined up through a hyphen. In my primary language – which is dutch – we tend to stick words together. With english, I’m not always sure when you are supposed to place a hyphen, leave a gap, or join the words togethers. Like for instance: all together, altogether, all-together. Well placed, well-placed, wellplaced?

First, there is a difference between a dash and a hyphen. We’ve discussed dashes before–they are used to indicate a break or pause in thought, much like a comma does. Where Peter says “- like now-” he should rightfully use two dashes together (–).

A Hyphen, on the other hand, has two functions.

  • One is for pulling words together. (“Well-placed”)
  • One is for separating them into syl-la-bles.

Since Peter’s questions is mostly about the first one, we’re going to focus on that.
I’ve touched on the first one, back when I told you about compound-adjectives, but the “compound” part is not restricted solely to adjectives. Generally speaking, when you’re putting two or more words together because they are acting as a team, you need to tie them together with hyphens. (“Blue-green yarn.” “The next-to-the-last chair in the row.” “The well-placed decoration is just the right touch.”)

If they are working individually, however, you keep them separate. (“I like the blue, green, and yellow yarns.” “I’m sitting next to the door.” “I must say, that chair is so well placed, it never falls over.”)

Also, if they get tied together long enough, they eventually become one word. (Handspun yarn. Lightbulb.) So in Peter’s question about “all together,” you can use “all together” to describe the action of a group, but you would not use “all-together” at any time I can immediately think of. “Altogether,” of course, can describe (ahem) a person without clothes, as in “The king was in the altogether, as naked as the day that he was born.” If you’re not sure whether a pairing has passed into the not-needing-hyphen stage yet, it doesn’t hurt anything to use it.

Thanks for the question, Peter. Hope this helps. Anybody else have questions?