Hyphenation—worth a second look

It’s a gift and a curse.

Ragan readers, you know what I’m talking about. Even when you’re not looking for them, you see them. I’m talking about spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors on signs, in movie credits, on magazine covers. They’re everywhere, and we can’t help but notice them.

Last week, I drove past a billboard that said, “Your coworking headquarters.” I had to look twice to make sure I understood what the sign meant.

That billboard brought to mind my least favorite punctuation mark, the hyphen, and how hyphens are generally used to avoid ambiguity, yet they confuse everyone.

Hyphens connect words, prefixes, and suffixes. Regrettably, a definitive collection of hyphenation rules does not exist. Rather, different style manuals prescribe different usage guidelines.

In the style guide that I use most frequently—the American Medical Association Manual of Style—there are eight pages on the hyphen. These pages include rules for when you should use hyphens and when you should not.

Here is an abridged version of the hyphenation rules taken from the AMA Manual of Style.

Hyphenate when the terms are used as an adjective before the noun.

• Did the creators of hyphenation rules use valid decision-making methods? (But: Their methods of decision making were questionable.)
• The student came for a follow-up visit to discuss his inability to hyphenate correctly. (But: Be sure to follow up with that style guide.)

Hyphenate two nouns of equal participation used as a single noun.

• She is a writer-editor.
• The student-teacher relationship became strained.

Use a hyphen as a prefix when the unhyphenated word would have a different meaning.

• re-treat
• re-creation
• re-formation

Hyphens can also be used to avoid an awkward combination of letters.

• de-emphasize
• anti-inflammatory

Last, here are the rules for when not to use a hyphen. The following common prefixes are not joined by hyphens:

• ante (antebellum)
• anti (antibiotic)
• bi (bivalve)
• co (coauthor)
• contra (contraindication)
• de (debrief)
• extra (extracurricular)
• infra (infrared)
• inter (interoperatively)
• intra (intravenous)
• micro (microsurgery)
• mid (midway)
• non (noncompliant)
• over (overtreatment)
• pre (preoperatively)
• post (postoperatively)
• pro (proactive)
• pseudo (pseudoscience
• re (retrench)
• semi (semiannual)
• sub (substandard)
• super (supernatural)
• supra (suprapubic)
• trans (transaortic)
• tri (triglycerides)
• ultra (ultrasound)
• un (unconscious)
• under (underbite)

Of course, these hyphenation rules can all be overruled by the guiding principle of hyphenation use: Hyphens should be used to avoid ambiguity.

So, taking our example from the billboard, which is correct? “Co-work” or “cowork”? The rules state you shouldn’t use a hyphen with the prefix “co” but “coworking” is confusing.

[RELATED: Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela present advanced writing and editing tips for corporate communicators. Join them in Chicago, Washington D.C. or Denver!]

What would you do Ragan readers?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

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