ice cream … would you like a hyphen with that?

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superpos...

Lower case ‘a’ from Adobe Caslon Pro, superposed onto some guides. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyphenation of words or linked words is so variable, that if you are a publisher, you really need to have your preferences highlighted in your style guide. As the language evolves, many words that took hyphens become compound words without hyphens, but in the process, many still linger between the two. Do you write co-operate and co-ordinate or cooperate and coordinate? Is it ice cream or ice-cream (whatever way you put it, the latter still tastes nice!).

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Pam Peters) is an excellent guide comparing US, UK and Australian English Usage, and I will quote from it here in reference to hyphen usage.

Though there are few fixed conventions over hyphens, authorities do agree on such underlying principles as: 

  • restrict the use of hyphens as far as possible
  • shed the linking hyphen from the better established formations
  • use hyphens to separate letter sequences which distract the reader from construing the word correctly

The guide goes on to enumerate a number of general rules for ‘hard hyphens’ as opposed to ‘ soft hyphens’ that are used to break a word at the end of a line.
1. Complex words with prefixes are not normally hyphenated, but set solid. For example, amoral, debrief, cohabit. In some cases, however, as with co- and ex- it depends on whether the word is an older or newer type of formation. Other exceptions … are a) using a hyphen when the prefix ends in the same vowel as as the first letter of the root word, as in : anti-intellectual and de-emphasise. b) introducing a hyphen in formations which would otherwise be identical with another word (as in re-cover). c) using a hyphen when the following word involves a change in typography, such as capital letters, numbers, to or from italics, or quotation marks.
2. Compounds – Compound verbs … consisting of a noun + verb (baby-sit) are typically hyphenated. Compound adverbs are usually set solid (barefoot, downstairs, overboard). Compound adjectives are typically hyphenated (tone-deaf, red-hot, icy-cold, nuclear-free). Compound nouns can be written with hyphens, spaced, or set solid, depending somewhat on what they consist of. 
It goes on to enlarge on the above, with various exceptions and combinations. If we go back to the question in my title of ice cream, what is the answer? It is a noun compound that can be applied spaced or with a hyphen depending on what dictionary you use and what applies in the style guide of the publication you may write for.
I hope this gives some clarification to the usage of hard hyphens, while it will raise plenty of questions, I’m sure.

Little words doing a big job

Air France - KLM Douglas DC3

Air France - KLM Douglas DC3 (Photo credit: FrancoisRoche)

What would happen if we left out all those little words – the definite and indefinite articles? I can hear lots of people asking ‘What are they?’ … and indeed, I had to remind myself of their uncommon description, which only English teachers and writers with good grammar memories would know. Okay, you will know them when I show them to you. Three words come to mind, those being ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’. The first two are what are called indefinite articles, which simply means that they are used in front of nouns if the writer is not specifying anything. For example, I went on a flight on a DC3. I am not referring to a specific flight, and I am not referring to a specific DC3 plane. However, if I said, I went on the 4.50pm flight on the DC3 to Birdsville (yes, that is a real place in Australia), then I am specifying the flight as the 4.50pm one, and on the one plane going to Birdsville at that time.

The indefinite article ‘an’ is used if the noun begins with a vowel or the noun is pronounced as a vowel, as in a silent consonant. Examples are: An apple a day and An honest opinion.

As long as you remember the function of these three small but important words, then that is the main thing.