Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Proper punctuation is kind of a big deal. Yes, it may be true that errant apostrophe use won’t have a dramatic impact on the meaning of a sentence, but other punctuation marks can make all the difference. One such example is the lowly hyphen.

A hyphen, which should not be confused with a dash, is the horizontal line that you most commonly find between two (or more) words that are meant to be joined together as a single word with a single meaning. What some people might call a dead end street, others might refer to as a cul-de-sac. You’ll also find the hyphen used when referring to a 30-year-old man or pre-19th century literature. In these instances, the hyphen doesn’t seem like it is adding any real value or meaning, per se.

In other instances, however, the hyphen can dramatically change how a word or sentence is interpreted. Consider this example:

bat eating spider vs bat-eating spider

“It can be quite shocking to see a bat eating spider.” Whereas “bat eating spider” gives you the sense that the bat is the one consuming some spider meat, “bat-eating spider” implies that the spider is the predator and the bat is the prey. Hyphens can help to clarify ambiguity.

Here’s another example:

unionized vs. un-ionized

The first word has “union” as its basis, so “unionized workers” would then refer to workers who are organized in some sort of trade union. Alternatively, you can view “ion” as the root word, in which case “unionized” could be interpreted as “un-ionized,” meaning that the particle or substance is not in an ion form. In this way, “unionized” and “un-ionized” not only have different meanings, but also different pronunciations.

recreation vs. re-creation

“Recreation” (as in leisure activities) is quite different from “re-creation” (as in creating something again). If you don’t include the hyphen in there, the majority of people are going to read “recreation” to mean the former, rather than the latter.

Sometimes, whether or not to hyphenate a word is a matter of style. It might also have to do with just how some compound words simply look awkward when unhyphenated (anti-inflammatory vs. antiinflammmatory). Other times, as illustrated above, the hyphen could dramatically change the message altogether. Just as we must respect the power of the comma, we must also be diligent with how we use the almighty hyphen.