Hyphen Hurdles: Can You Make the Jump? by Denise Loock

By Denise Loock

Hyphens wear me out. I don’t calculate how much time I invest in hurdling hyphens, but they consume several hours of every editing project I tackle. Open compounds, closed compounds, hyphenated compounds. Adjective, adverb, noun, and verb—each comes with a truckload of hyphenated possibilities.

To exemplify the kind of hyphen hurdles every editor leaps over, I’ll use words from two recent projects. On a first read, I focus on words the author has chosen to hyphenate. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, online version, is open on my desktop. My mind raises a red flag when I encounter auto-pilot, multi-tasking, and first-hand. I know these are closed compounds and correct them. But then I come to check-out line. Hmm. I go to M-W, where I’m reminded that checkout is an open compound as a verb but closed as noun or adjective. Who makes these decisions, I wonder. Sigh.

A few sentences later, I come across clean-up. Pretty sure that’s closed, but I better check M-W. Yes. Closed as a noun or adjective, but open as a verb. Will I remember that cleanup and checkout follow the same pattern? Doubtful but possible.

Other words I check and correct on the first read include offtrack (adjective and adverb), predawn, prepackage, and lifespan. I also discover that snakeskin is a closed compound when it refers to the leather produced out of a snake skin (open compound). Again I wonder who’s in charge of these decisions.

By the time I finish the first read, I’ve written more than fifty words on the project’s spelling chart that are hyphen-related hurdles. Why do we write tea bag but teacup? Why is face-to-face a hyphenated adverb but hand in hand isn’t? And who decided that Spider-Man and Ant-Man should be hyphenated when Superman and Batman aren’t?

On the second read—when I check my edits, wrestle with awkward sentences, and juggle word choice—a few words that seemed right the first time now smirk at me. I check slam-dunk. Open as a noun but hyphenated as a verb. Mind reader. Should that be hyphenated? Nope. Go figure. Oops! Nonprofit is closed, I chide myself.

I hope you’re nodding as you read this post. Sure, The Chicago Manual of Style gives us that wonderful 14-page hyphenation chart. I use it all the time. But as helpful as the CMOS chart and guidelines are, hundreds—maybe thousands—of words aren’t listed in CMOS. The only way I know to hurdle all the correctly and incorrectly hyphenated words in the manuscripts I edit is to second-guess myself every time I see a word that maybe, just maybe, should or should not be hyphenated.

And yes, I checked M-W to verify that second-guess is a hyphenated verb. Here are a couple other verbs I know are hyphenated: spring-clean and roller-skate. Maybe I’ll save you the trouble of looking them up.

If you have hyphen-related tricks and tips, I’d love to hear them. With hyphens, I need all the help I can get.

Denise Loock is a general editor for Iron Stream Media and also accepts freelance projects. She teaches Editing Devotionals 101 and Sentence Diagramming 101 for The PEN Institute and is the director of PENCON, the only annual conference for Christian proofreaders and editors.