People who are learning English generally consider the dictionary their most important learning aid. Many dictionaries are presented as learner’s dictionaries. Then there are text books of English grammar, which deal with parts of speech, parsing and analysis.

The European Union (EU) has brought out its own English style guide for authors and translators. The writing is clear, concise and direct. Here is a sample entry: “Words in -ise/-ize. Use -ise. Both spellings are correct in British English, but the -ise form is now much more common in the media."

The opening chapter deals with spellings and its last section with the use of the hyphen. Hyphens do not seem to enjoy much popularity today. Churchill said the hyphen is a blemish to be avoided wherever possible. Woodrow Wilson said it is the most un-American thing in the world. A major Oxford dictionary is reported to have removed the hyphen from 16000 words resulting in forms such as fig leaf, test tube, crybaby, logjam and pigeonhole.

The opening chapter of the style guide deals with spellings and its last section with the use of the hyphen. Photo: AFP

In this column, we will look at some patterns from the EU guide. A phrase such as “data bank" begins as two words, then gets a hyphen and ends as one block. “Website" has gone through these three stages; and “email" has given up its hyphen and capital letter.

If a compound word has a single letter as its first element, use a hyphen, as in U-turn, T-shirt. Prefixes before proper names are hyphenated: un-American, pan-Asian, trans-Siberian. Transatlantic is an exception.

The prefixes ex- and self- are hyphenated: “ex-husband", “self-styled godman". Some of these prefixes too tend to dispense with the hyphen: “antibody", “cooperation", “coordination".

The study of hyphens leads us to a discussion of compound modifiers, defined as two or more words expressing a single concept and functioning as adjective. There is a large variety of these compounds. In adverb-adjective modifiers, no hyphen is used if the first word ends in –ly: “carefully crafted jewellery", “genetically modified food". With other adverbs, a hyphen is used: “well-known poet", “broad-based programme".

If the modifier has a noun and a participle, a hyphen is used: “problem-solving skills", “decision-making process", “rain-bearing clouds" and “drug-induced sleep". When a compound phrase is used as a modifier, it takes hyphens. Compare “long- term effects" with “policy for the long term", and “cost-of-living index" with “rising cost of living."

Hyphens are sometimes used to avoid the doubling of vowels or consonants in the middle of a word, as in anti-intellectual, re-entry, shell-like, matt-tinted, re-election. Frequently used words such as cooperation and bookkeeping may drop the hyphen.

An interesting use of the hyphen, not described in grammar books, is coordinate construction. If there is a phrase such as “heat-resistant and acid-resistant" in the sentence, the first-occurring “resistance" is dropped. So we get “heat- and acid-resistant". Similarly, we have “water- and air-borne diseases". These are also called suspended compounds. The structure is fairly common now in business writing and technical writing.

When a number forms part of the adjective phrase, a hyphen is used. “We have a five-day working week", “Bolt won the 100-metre sprint", “a two-day seminar". Hyphens are liberally used by some writers to sound casual. A “not-to-be-forgotten moment", a “couldn’t-care-less" attitude, “never-before-experienced wildlife encounters". This pattern should be avoided in serious or formal writing.

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V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.