I like using hyphens almost as much as I like peanut butter. (In case you didn’t read on Monday, that’s a lot.) Hyphens are always my first choice when hurdling any obstacle of grammar. If I can’t think of just the right word to describe a certain thought, I’ll typically hyphen a bunch of other words together to make my point. It’s a literary lifesaver! They must be used carefully, however, because hyphens can easily be confused with dashes, minus signs, and (if your eyes are really bad) underscores. So let’s take a trip down orthoepy lane and see how to use the handy hyphen in an English-respecting-yet-still-slightly-humorous manner.
First off, a hyphen, “-“ should not be confused with a dash, “—“. A dash is typically used to describe a range of some sort. For example, it takes me 5—8 minutes to drive to work in the morning (fact), or you should eat 10—12 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups per day (fiction) (unfortunately). A hyphen should also not be confused with a minus, “-“. Even though they look exactly the same, clearly the minus implies mathematical . . . consequences, if you will, and should never be taken lightly. Finally, the hyphen is quite different from an underscore, “_”. This is a hyphen, followed by an underscore, and then another hyphen, and so forth:
-_ - _ - _ - _ - _ - _ -
The two are utterly and obviously geographically different. The underscore is little more than a sad, fallen dash for which I do not sympathize. (Well, maybe a little.)
So we know what a hyphen is not. But what is it good for? Here are some uses for the hyphen and what the careful placement of them means:
two-hundred-year-old bags = some bags (or old ladies, take your pick) which are 200 years old
two hundred-year-old bags = two bags which are each 100 years old
two hundred year-old bags = 200 bags which are each only 1 year old
two-hundred-year old bags = definitely old, probably more than 200 years
English is confusing, isn’t it? The hyphen can also be used to squeeze, or “justify,” words into columns. There’s also the “dangling” hyphen, used when you want to conjunct two hyphened words. For example, “industry in the US flourished in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.” But the real fun with hyphen is like I described before: bunching words together to bridge your thoughts. Here is a quote from a post last month:
“…bottom number only counts every time a new visitor views the site. How? It’s top-secret-FBI-style-crime-solving-identity-tracking-software-that-if-I-told-you-I’d-have-to-kill-you sort of stuff. . . . Just kidding (or am I?). The internet just picks up any new…”
See? You can literally run away with hyphenation in whatever way your little better-not-be-holding-scissors-while-you’re-doing-it heart desires!