Don’t you love a hyphen? That often-used (there’s one already) little dash can do so much to understand words and prose, but in the next moment, it can complicate and confuse too.

It helps us when we want to talk about a scary-looking monster or a man-eating tiger. Or even a football-mad fan. These are reasonable and acceptable uses of the little hyphen.

But there are so many rules surrounding the use of this punctuation mark that it can also be difficult to get to grips with. It’s a mark that has been around for hundreds of years and you would think we would have got the measure of it by now.

So, what’s it for? There are three main reasons to use a hyphen: to help make compound words understandable; to join a prefix to a word; or to break up a word in a comfortable way.

Compound words are longish forms that have two components to make one word. Fair-haired, bad-tempered and car-mad are good examples of these. They need a hyphen because without one the word would look at best, odd and at worst, unintelligible.

Prefixes often need a hyphen to help join them to the main word – but not always. Pre-arrange would look clumsy without a hyphen and re-cover has a completely different meaning from recover. Some people even pop a hyphen into words like ski-ing, just to make them easier to understand, although there is nothing wrong with skiing – as long as you like snow.

Hyphens also help with word breaks, most commonly when setting up a long piece of copy and words need to ‘break’ on to the next line. That’s fine, unless the word wants to break ambiguously, and give you re-sort (resort), re-press (repress) or, the famously-quoted one, therapist… if that breaks badly it has a most unfortunate, criminally different meaning.

We used to refer to pilots and their colleagues as air crew. Sometimes that was written hyphenated like air-crew. But today the common way is to go for one word: aircrew. The same could be said for playground, online and notepad.

And if you leave out a hyphen where it’s needed for clarification, you can walk into grammatical trouble. Is a single minded person someone who knows exactly what they want to achieve, or a solo person who has an intent?

Is a good looking instrument an attractive guitar, or a fine telescope? And is a fair haired man a blonde male, or a reasonable guy with hair?

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? It really comes down to knowledge, experience and a full understanding of language. Hyphens, like so many punctuation marks and grammatical rules, are variable, adjustable and constantly developing. Mastering them is vital if you want to get on in a business environment.

Clear, correct vocabulary and punctuation gives your readers or recipients the impression that your thinking, and therefore your capabilities, are clear and correct too. You can’t rely on machines, translators or AI software – only the human mind can do this. So get it right and you’ll be spot-on.

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