Writing Class: the Hyphen

Today, class, let’s talk about hyphens. You find much variation in hyphen usage. There are few rights and wrongs.

Here’s what happens. Two words get linked by a hyphen, but after a few decades (or less), we stop using the hyphen. Many words you use regularly were once hyphenated: throughout, breakdown, guidelines, mindset, worldwide, outcome, outhouse, outpatient, eyewitness.

Those words have made the transition. A number of words are currently in transition, and you’ll see them spelled with and without hyphens (sometimes in the same document). Examples: co-worker, down-size, start-up, jump-start, co-pay, on-going.

When in doubt, people tend to include a hyphen. But in all of the words above, I typically do without. The goal, as always, is clear communication. If the meaning is clear without the hyphen, then why use it?

As an editor not enslaved to a particular stylebook, I adopt a progressive approach, removing hyphens long before stylebooks get around to it. I know where usage will land, so I jump ahead. I’m not alone in doing that, but I’m definitely in the minority.

Most magazines write “web-site.” I write “website.”

Most publications write “e-mail.” I write “email.” However, I write “e-letter,” which I admit appears inconsistent. So sue me.

Class dis-missed.

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