hyphens

Hyphens are all about words who like to snuggle. They’re about closeness. When a group of words is all working together to modify something, they need to be linked so that the reader knows to consider them as a whole.

Strangely, though, they can also do the opposite. Maybe hyphens are bipolar. One minute they’re about closeness, and the next they’re about separation. When letters used to be flush against each other and a hyphen breaks them up, you know it’s switched personalities. Instead of treating the hyphenated chunks as unified, you give more consideration to each part, as individual letters or syllables.

Professional Examples

  • He was wearing a crushed-strawberry-pink T-shirt, drenched darker now, and he knew that Rahel had come.

~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

  • “My rig is a jacked-up eighty-two Dodge four by four with thirty-eight-inch rubber on it, and the water was right up to the hood.”

~from John Krakauer’s Into the Wild

  • The freshman-to-be sees photos of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate phys-ed facilities; of fine dining rooms; of expertly kept sports fields; of orchestras and drama troupes; of students working alone (no overbearing grown-ups in range), peering with high seriousness into computers and microscopes; or of students arrayed outdoors in attractive conversational garlands. Occasionally—but only occasionally, for we usually photograph rather badly; in appearance we tend at best to be styleless—there’s a professor teaching a class.

~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

  • Whatever you call it, I wrote my page or two of notes in a frenzy of excitement and spent the next two or three days turning my solution over in my mind, looking for flaws and holes (also working out the actual narrative flow, which involved two supporting characters placing a bomb in a major character’s closet), but that was mostly out of a sense of this-is-too-good-to-be-true unbelief.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Once I’ve done that, I should be able to correct the worst of my howlers and add some really nice detail-work.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • As for the deck, it was just big enough to sit on cross-legged or to lie on in a tight, nearly-to-term fetal position.

~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

  • Your software program gives several options: you can create text that is left-, right-, fully, or center-justified.

~Lee Odell and Susan M. Katz’s Writing in a Visual Age

  • I almost heard it, as though it were being whispered in my ear in four distinct syllables, pre-mo-ni-tion. . . . With great effort, I wiped the pre-mo-ni-tion from my mind and lay down again.

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

How Hyphens Work

Hyphens are the compromise between a space and no space. They are used as both connectors (vs. a space) and separators (vs. no space).

Connection

Think of nouns like three-year-old where the hyphens connect the three words to form one idea; also think of adjectives like rose-pink where the hyphen tells us the two words are working together to describe something. The connection made by the hyphens helps to clarify that the linked words modify each other rather than acting separately.

A string of words used to modify a noun get hyphenated to act as one. Place hyphens connecting all the words except the noun itself; for example, “I’ve been to I-don’t-know-how-many concerts.”

In a series, you can leave a hyphen dangling on the end of the first item(s) to show a common connection rather than stating it more than once; for example, “My son’s preschool class is full of four- and five-year-olds.”

Words ending in -ly don’t get hyphenated, as in the example of “fully justified” above.

In title case, only the first word in a hyphenated set gets capitalized: First-year Composition Class

Separation

Hyphens are the mark used to break a word at the end of a line (when the whole word won’t fit) and finish it on the next line. It can be used this same way to break apart syllables within a word, often for the effect of forcing the reader to say the word slower. The same thing can also be done to break apart each letter of a word as though spelling it for the reader: w-o-r-d.

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