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Hyphens or not

July 11, 2014

Based on a Writing Tip I wrote for my work colleagues…

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Some phrases can be written with or without hyphens (e.g. short term/short-term, high pressure/high-pressure), so how do you decide if you need to use a hyphen or not?

If you check dictionaries, such as the (Australian) Macquarie Dictionary, you may find some guidance, but different dictionaries (especially those for US or UK English) may have different ‘rules’. Different style guides also have different ‘rules’. For the [project] documents, our authorities are Macquarie and the (Australian) Style Manual; however, the Style Manual seems to avoid the issue as it has little to say on these words.

The basic ‘rule’ that I use when deciding whether to use a hyphen or not is ‘What role are the words playing in the sentence?’ Are they a two-word adjectival phrase qualifying another noun, or are the two words used as an adjective and a noun in their own right?

I’ll give you some examples:

  • ‘… resulting in short-term effects…’ – in this example, the two words short and term are an adjectival phrase that qualifies another word, effects. Therefore, the two words are hyphenated, i.e. ‘short-term effects’.
  • ‘… will occur in the short term…’ – in this example, short qualifies the noun term, not another word, so the two words are NOT hyphenated.
  • ‘… high-pressure system…’ – high and pressure are an adjectival phrase qualifying system. Therefore, hyphenate these words, i.e.  ‘high-pressure system’.
  • ‘… the system operated under high pressure…’ – high qualifies the noun pressure, not another word, so don’t hyphenate these two words.
  • ‘… five-hour period…’ – five and hour are an adjectival phrase qualifying period. Therefore, hyphenate these words, i.e. ‘five-hour period’.
  • ‘… every five hours…’ – five qualifies the noun hours, not another word, so don’t hyphenate these two words.
  • ‘… below-ground pipeline …’ – below and ground are an adjectival phrase qualifying pipeline. Therefore, hyphenate these words, i.e. ‘below-ground pipeline’.
  • ‘… the pipeline is below ground…’ – below qualifies the noun ground, not another word, so don’t hyphenate these two words.
  • ‘… high-energy waves …’ – high and energy are an adjectival phrase qualifying waves. Therefore, hyphenate these words, i.e. ‘high-energy waves’.
  • ‘… waves that are high energy…’ – high qualifies the noun energy, not another word, so don’t hyphenate these two words.

Not every situation will fit this ‘rule’, but it’s worth applying when you are trying to decide whether to hyphenate a term or not and you’re not getting any guidance from the dictionary.

For more discussion on this, see: http://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/to-hyphenate-or-not-to-hyphenate/

[Link last checked July 2014]

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