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Hyphens – definition
Hyphens are short horizontal marks – (shorter than the dash).
Hyphens are used to show a link between words.
Hyphens are used to join words when forming compounds.
They are also used after prefixes – especially where it is necessary to avoid an awkward or confusing sequence of letters (as in re-enter).
Notice the difference between a compound word and the same terms used separately:
a fifteenth-century manuscript
in the fifteenth century
NB! The hyphen is not the same thing as the longer dash ( — ) but this distinction is rarely made in the UK.
Hyphens should be used where it is necessary to avoid ambiguity:
two year-old cats
They should also be used to distinguish terms which are spelled identically, but which have different meanings:
reformation – change for the better
re-formation – to form again
recover – to regain control
re-cover – to cover again
resign – to stand down
re-sign – to sign again
Hyphens are used when new terms are formed from compounds, but they are dropped when the compound is accepted into common usage. (This process is usually more rapid in the USA than in Europe.)
bath-tub -> bathtub
book-shelf -> bookshelf
club-house -> clubhouse
This phenomenon is currently visible in computer technology, where all three forms of a term may co-exist:
Remember that the hyphen is not the same thing as the longer dash. A distinction between the two is commonly made in the US, but not in the UK.
© Roy Johnson 2003