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Correct Use of a Hyphen in Desktop Publishing

written by: Amy Carson•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 7/13/2010

The poor, little, short, abused, misunderstood hyphen. Learn the correct use of a hyphen in desktop publishing and typesetting with these 5 simple-to-remember rules.

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    The Hyphen


    Pity the hyphen (-). The short bar found on the upper right of your keyboard: oft-used, oft-abused. The hyphen, along with its near lookalikes, the en dash and the em dash, often get confused with one another and used improperly. The real professionals know when and where to use the hyphen properly, and you can, too. Just read on to learn the 5 rules for using a hyphen.

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    Hyphen Rule 1: Word Breaks

    We're most familiar with this usage. Hyphens are used to break up long words at the end of a line of type. Word processing and desktop publishing programs will do this automatically for you at your discretion, so there's never a need to manually type in a hyphen to break up a word. Always turn auto-hyphenation off in your software, unless circumstances demand it. Non-hyphenated line endings are always preferable to hyphenation.

    If you must manually hyphenate a long word at the end of a line, don't do it randomly. Break the word at a syllable change.

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    Hyphen Rule 2: Compound Words

    Use a hyphen when writing compound words that would otherwise be confusing. Compound words are when two or more words are strung together. For example, "editor-in-chief" is a compound word, as is "merry-go-round." When in doubt as to whether you need a hyphen (or two) in a compound word, consult a dictionary, as usage varies.

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    Hyphen Rule 3: Compound Proper Names

    Hyphens are often used in long, multi-word names, such as "Jean-Paul Gaultier" and "Claude Lévi-Strauss." However, this is another case in which discretion is in order, because it's up to the person themselves as to whether their name is hyphenated or not. For instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn't hyphenate her name. Go with what the owner of the name uses.

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    Hyphen Rule 4: Compound Modifiers

    Compound modifiers are hyphenated in order to add clarity and reduce confusion. For instance, a "man eating shark" could be a shark being eaten by a man, while "man-eating shark" is much more clearly a shark that eats men. When two or more words are modifying a noun, they will commonly take a hyphen in order for the meaning to make sense.

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    Hyphen Rule 5: Prefixes

    Prefixes include words like non, un, pre, post, pro, anti. If a number or a capital letter follows the prefix, always use a hyphen in between. For example:

    • pre-Newtonian physics
    • anti-Canadian feeling
    • post-1500 Spanish culture

    Additionally, always use a hyphen if the prefix ends in a or i when the next word begins with the same letter. Example: ultra-ambitious.

    The prefix ex always takes a hyphen, as in ex-husband.

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    And there you have it. The hyphen isn't so bad; it likes to make things easier to read and understand. Simply put these 5 rules for correct use of a hyphen to use, and consult a dictionary when necessary, and the plain little hyphen will do its job with panache.

The Short and Long of It: When to Use Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes

How to use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes? They're 3 different punctuation marks that only differ in their length from one another. Using them properly distinguishes the pro from the amateur. Read this series to learn when and why to use hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.
  1. Correct Use of a Hyphen in Desktop Publishing
  2. En Dash vs. Em Dash: When to Use Each