How Do We Learn to Hyperhyphenate?

One of the things I like about English is its unrest. The language is always in flux: new words appear, old ones are abandoned, and words and phrases from other cultures are woven into the tapestry. But there are other changes that seem less positive to me. One disturbing trend I've noticed is the ease with which words are hyphenated when there's no pressing reason for it. It's almost like everything has to be hyphenated, or no one will understand. Although I've seen references to a current trend away from unnecessary hyphenation and am encouraged by the news, I continue to run into examples that leave me wondering when this trend will commence.

Small EquipmentThe principal purpose of hyphenation is to avoid ambiguity. Sometimes when several words are sitting there side by side, it’s tough to figure out which are supposed to be connected, but the hyphen removes all doubt. In the photo, the nameplate on the commercial dryer obviously refers to a company's name, but in the world of sentence construction it could go either way. It wouldn't be clear whether small is the name of a company that makes equipment, or if the entire phrase refers to a company that only makes little stuff. It’s ambiguous. In this case, it probably doesn’t make much difference to someone who’s mostly interested in drying clothes; it's just an example. But if you were creating a sentence with those three words in it—and assuming none of the three words were capitalized—you'd want to make the meaning clear.

I work for the small-equipment company on the other side of town.

I work for the small equipment company on the other side of town.

If you want to indicate that the company makes small equipment, the first sentence is what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you work for a small company, the second version would be the way to go. The third possibility is that you work for a company owned by someone with the last name of Small; if so, capitalization is all you need.

I work for the Small Equipment Company on the other side of town.

Anyway, that's the sort of situation that demands hyphenation. But what if a sentence's meaning already seems clear? If there's no real need for hyphenating words, why do it? I think somewhere along the line people began to doubt their sentences would be fully understood, so they began hyphenating words that hadn’t been before, just to avoid the possibility of trouble. Now it’s become a habit, and hyphenation is used where the possibility of ambiguity is extremely low, or even nonexistent.

Before you throw the main breaker, be sure to turn-off any appliances and lights in your home.

This is an extreme example, but I've actually seen this sentence in print. If there's a purpose for that hyphen, it's beyond me.

Her business-as-usual attitude had little effect on the stockholders.

Here in the heart of the city, it's business as usual.

In the first sentence you can see the hyphens at work, speeding up the reading process; you don't have to pause to think about what the sentence really means. Although there's a low probability of ambiguity due to the way the sentence is constructed, removing the hyphens would probably be a bad idea. The second sentence doesn’t need hyphens, and never will. And yet, you see that business as usual phrase hyphenated from stem to stern all over the place, regardless of actual need.

This is one of the little-known effects of global warming.

That sentence desperately needs the hyphen; without it, ambiguity reigns. No one would really be sure if you're talking about a minor effect of global warming, or one that ought to receive greater attention.

Although he denied it, Geoff was always a big-city mouse.

Unless you mean a large mouse who lives in the city, that sentence wouldn't work well without the hyphen, either.

Personally, I enjoy pulling two words tightly together instead of putting a hyphen between. I do this whenever I think I can get away with it. Not that I would attempt to meld words such as ice and cold; outside an advertisement, that could be a vulgar construct. But in my opinion, words like hyperdrive, preflight and citywide were never meant to live with a hyphen wedged in. In fact, I know how disappointed some will be at the liberties I've already taken with the title of this post; I know some will want to split it into two words, while others will demand hyphenation. What can I say? I just like it better this way, and it isn't really causing any grammatical harm.

One more obscure detail, and then I’ll quit. If you ever decide to reuse one half of a compound, you'll want to make sure the hyphen is there on the orphaned piece, too.

All first- and business-class passengers were required to disembark.

By the way, I'm not advocating hyphen reduction when it comes to compound numbers, or words that simply can't function without them. I wouldn't want to see the word unAmerican written the way I just did. Unlike Sir Winston Churchill, I don't think of the hyphen as a blemish; I just think there are too many of them in circulation.  



  1. Anonymous6:24 AM UTC

    How marvelous! You describe the English language as being in a state of "unrest." I often catch myself saying that English is "organic," but a "restless flux" is so highly evocative! I'll never say "organic" again!

  2. Anonymous3:50 PM UTC

    Restless flux . . . evocative it is! Are we not flux? We are Evo!