Using Hyphens in Formal English Writing: Rules and Perils

Using Hyphens in Formal English Writing: Rules and Perils
Hyphens may seem too small an element of writing to warrant the term ‘perils,’ but a consistent system of hyphenation can be incredibly tricky to establish because the use of hyphens often depends upon the context of a word or phrase – namely, its specific role and its position in a sentence. Some disciplines will have conventional patterns of usage, and some journals will even provide specific instructions for the use of hyphens, so you may be provided with guidelines that indicate how and when hyphens should be used, but this is rare, and it is more common for style guides simply to recommend that hyphenation be kept to a minimum. This is good advice because, although some hyphenated terms are traditional, hyphens tend to be used to clarify an author’s meaning, and excessive hyphenation can defeat this purpose as well as looking ‘fussy and dated’ (Ritter, New Hart’s Rules, OUP, 2005, Section 3.3.3).
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In addition, correct hyphenation patterns in English can vary from term to term, and there is a tendency for hyphenated compounds to become closed with frequent use over time (the change from ‘on line’ to ‘on-line’ to ‘online’ is a good example). As a general rule, however, hyphens are used more extensively in British than in American English, so a good dictionary that provides some advice on hyphenation in one or both forms of the language is essential for looking up individual words and compounds. Beyond focussing on accepted patterns and clarity of meaning when using hyphens, it is important to ensure that each hyphenated element remains consistent throughout an article (or any other document), and that similar words and phrases used in similar ways feature similar hyphenation as much as this is possible and sensible. Do keep in mind, however, that some compound terms will need to be hyphenated while other similar ones may not.
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The lack of a general rule regarding hyphenation and the abundance of variant approaches leave hyphens (and the conscientious scholarly author) a little up in the air. In addition, the principles of hyphenation, like other elements of language, are fluid, so they tend to change. For capitalising hyphenated compounds in titles and headings, for example, it was once the case that only the first element bore an initial capital (Low-level Executive) unless the second element was a proper noun or otherwise required capitalisation, but the trend in the early twenty-first century is to capitalise both elements (Low-Level Executive), particularly when full capitalisation is used for titles and headings. A capital on the first element only (as in ‘Low-level executive’) still tends to be used at the beginning of sentences, however, and in titles and headings using minimal capitalisation.

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