A wise writer once said, “If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.” Hyphens belong to that category of punctuation marks that will hurt your brain if you think about them too hard, and, like commas, people disagree about their use in certain situations. Nevertheless, if you learn to use hyphens properly, they help you to write efficiently and concretely, and you will have to use them regularly because of the nature of technical writing. Because concepts in science and engineering frequently rely on word blends and complex word relationships, the best writers in these fields master the use of the hyphen.
The Hyphen’s Function
Fundamentally, the hyphen is a joiner. It joins:
- two nouns to make one complete word (kilogram-meter);
- an adjective and a noun to make a compound word (accident-prone);
- two words that, when linked, describe a noun (agreed-upon sum, two-dimensional object);
- a prefix with a noun (un-American);
- double numbers (twenty-four);
- numbers and units describing a noun (1000-foot face; a 10-meter difference)
- “self” and “well” words (self-employed, well-known);
- ethnic labels (Irish-American);
- new word blends (cancer-causing, cost-effective);
- prefixes and suffixes to words, in particular when the writer wants to avoid doubling a vowel or tripling a consonant (anti-inflammatory; shell-like).
The rule of thumb I apply when using the hyphen is that the resulting word must act as one unit; therefore, the hyphen creates a new word—either a noun or a modifier—that has a single meaning. Usually, you can tell whether a hyphen is necessary by applying common sense and mentally excluding one of the words in question, testing how the words would work together without the hyphen. For example, the phrases “high-pressure system,” “water-repellent surface,” and “fuel-efficient car” would not make sense without hyphens, because you would not refer to a “high system,” a “water surface,” or a “fuel car.” As your ears and eyes become attuned to proper hyphenation practices, you will recognize that both meaning and convention dictate where hyphens fit best.
The following websites offer exercises on using the hyphen properly, as well as the correct answers to the exercise questions:
Examples of Properly Used Hyphens
Some examples of properly used hyphens follow. Note how the hyphenated word acts as a single unit carrying a meaning that the words being joined would not have individually.
long-chain fatty acid
When Hyphens Are Not Needed
By convention, hyphens are not used in words ending in -ly, nor when the words are so commonly used in combination that no ambiguity results. In these examples, no hyphens are needed:
finely tuned engine blood pressure sea level real estate census taker atomic energy civil rights law public utility plant carbon dioxide
Prefixes and Suffixes
Most prefixes do not need to be hyphenated; they are simply added in front of a noun, with no spaces and no joining punctuation necessary. The following is a list of common prefixes that do not require hyphenation when added to a noun:
after anti bi bio co cyber di down hetero homo infra inter macro micro mini nano photo poly stereo thermo
Common suffixes also do not require hyphenation, assuming no ambiguities of spelling or pronunciation arise. Typically, you do not need to hyphenate words ending in the following suffixes:
able less fold like wise
Commonly Used Word Blends
Also, especially in technical fields, some words commonly used in succession become joined into one. The resulting word’s meaning is readily understood by technical readers, and no hyphen is necessary. Here are some examples of such word blends, typically written as single words:
blackbody groundwater airship downdraft longwall upload setup runoff blowout