They’re small things, hyphens. Literally, just tiny horizontal lines that connect words. But the hyphen deserves as much respect as any punctuation mark. And it’s not getting it. Rampant incorrect use of hyphens is contributing in its small way to the dulling of English-language literacy.
In the previous sentence I’ve used a hyphen appropriately, to convert a phrase (“the English language”) into an adjectival term modifying a noun (“English-language literacy”). But correct uses like that are feeding a tendency to make wrong ones. People see a correctly hyphenated construction such as “ten-year-old boy” and become convinced that it is then also correct to write “the boy is ten-years-old.”
Here’s another example, from current reporting about the protests in Iran:
Another common way of making this mistake is to hyphenate a verbal phrase. You tune in. You don’t “tune-in,” whatever Facebook says.
Similarly, you can kick off, but not “kick-off.” This one comes from the common compound word “kickoff,” borrowed from football. If you want to make a third-person verb out of it, you’d need to say “kicks,” but it doesn’t look right to write “kicksoff.” Still, we’re used to the term as a single word. So it looks better, I guess, to hyphenate than to correctly separate the words.
Looks better, maybe. But it’s still wrong.
Even the New York Times is guilty. The paper’s website carried a terrible hyphenation error upon Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent election to a second term. That’s “second term,” not “second-term” as the paper’s online promo box had it.
Why in the world would anyone put a hyphen there? For the same reason as in the age examples above. People are used to seeing phrases turned into adjectives by hyphenation. It would be perfectly correct to describe de Blasio as a “second-term mayor.” Hence the error of referring to his second term as his “second-term.”
An explanation, but not an excuse. Give hyphens the respect they deserve. Don’t misuse them.