Thursday , May 23 2024

Language Matters in Life and Business: Hyperventilating About Hyphens

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.

hyphen hyphenation grammar

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.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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