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You can’t go wrong with a hyphen or two: word-formation (Part 1)

Written by Gill Francis

If you are a teacher or learner of English, you are probably familiar with advice beginning You do not …, You cannot …, Be careful …, and WARNING! Older coursebooks, especially, used ‘strikethrough’ to herald the errors that you must simultaneously notice and unlearn, e.g.: I need to concentrate myself. Strikethrough is a curious convention: the veiled words self-destruct immediately upon impact with eye and brain; they are both there and not-there.

This particular oddity aside, learner’s resources inevitably get a lot of mileage from contrasting ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ uses; they remain largely prescriptive and rule-bound. So it is refreshing to encounter any feature that is productive – that you can exploit creatively and with confidence, where innovation is the norm and the rules bend easily.

In English, a well-known productive feature is the free use of nouns as modifiers of other nouns. Your audience will try to understand what you mean by that crocodile joke, the goose v turkey argument, the missing trousers mystery, or your pub quiz ambitions. These are all real examples, although their meanings are not obvious out of context.

Another flexible area is the way we add prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms to the beginning or end of other words, with or without hyphens.

Some productive prefixes are micro-, mini-, super-, mega-, and other informal size assessments. Take micro-. Apart from technical or sub-technical terms like microsecond, micro-organism, micro-manage, and micromessaging, micro– shows up in creative coinages like the answer given by the excellent Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science) to an interviewer’s enquiry about his ‘high public profile’: I’m not famous, but I do recommend my own level of highly contextual microfame.

At the other end of the scale, there are 2,000-plus lines for the prefix mega– in ukWaC (accessed via Skylight):

… fellow Tory MP, incurable Euro-baiter and mega-bore Kevin [name changed] … mega-cities like Mumbai and Tokyo
… the industrial mega-machine
mega-successful video poker games

Suffixes too are flexible. We all know and love (or hate) the versatile suffix –ish, meaning ‘fairly’ or ‘approximately’. Hyphens are fluid in English: you tend to put one before –ish for all but the most straightforward combinations – hence youngish, fattish, tallish BUT thirty-ish, trendy-ish, more-ish, and Doctor Who-ish (definitely not Whoish). And there is a blogger out there encouraging his colleagues to go ahead and talk about something meme-ish, which is about where my enthusiasm for innovation starts to wear thin(nish).

The combining trend is gathering momentum. There is a host of words that are grabbing a hyphen and attaching themselves to everyday nouns: management-speak and text-speak, future-proof systems and idiot-proof recipes, fragrance-free shampoo, irony-free comedy, and traffic-free greenways. Is the hyphen-free sentence on its way out?

But these predictable combinations are only the beginning. Hyphens are at the centre of a vast and expanding web of compounds: one-size-fits-all solutions, no-win-no-fee lawyers, easy-come, easy-go attitudes. And this is from an angling magazine, a genre that is unaccountably over-represented in some corpora:

This caravan cafe … is one of a dying breed of all-night, cheap-and-cheerful, no-nonsense, warm-and-welcoming transport cafes that used to punctuate the British road network.

Forget nominalisation! What better way could there be of packaging information into neat bundles than recruiting the versatile hyphen? It is also a sneaky way for a long-winded writer to beat that stringent word limit. A poster advertising David Attenborough’s TV series Natural Curiosities features the rare Arctic sea-mammal the narwhal. A large glossy narwhal glides across the double-page spread, preceded by its single long near-straight spiralled tooth. Revolving around it in the shadowy blue depths are small glowing satellites of information, one of which begins:

The deep-diving, squid-munching, Arctic-living narwhal …

You can just see the writer sitting back in satisfaction at having achieved so much in only five ‘words’, relieved that once again the battle against over-length has been fought and won, well, more-or-less fairly.

About the author

Gill Francis


  • One striking thing about hyphens from a lexicographer’s point of view is their arbitrariness. Why is it offbeat but on-board? Only because, at the time of compiling, these were the commonest written forms for each word – there is no loss of comprehensibility if we write onboard (as there is with Whoish and moreish).
    And of course another feature of hyphens is their habit of appearing in order to form new compounds and then disappearing as the compounds snap together to become closed units; so on-board has already become onboard in some places, and the closed form may well be the standard one before too long.

  • Liz: yes, hyphens are very fluid and arbitrary. Why did they choose to write down Ben G’s spoken word as ‘microfame’ and not ‘micro-fame’? Why is the film called ‘Supersize Me’ when ‘super size’ is more often written as two words? I agree that lots of compounds snap together to become units (neat way of putting it), and some don’t: ‘supersize’ also tends to snap together when it’s a modifier as in “NYC bans supersize soft drinks”.

    Hyphens often indicate a transitional phase between separate words and a snapped-together version. This is exactly why learners can use them with some confidence – there are no right answers. But hyphens are always necessary in useful new compounds like ‘mother-and-baby unit’, ‘name-and-shame list, ‘nuts-and-bolts ufology’, ‘cut-and-come-again salads’ – not much chance the words will join up. And then there are the multi-hyphenated modifiers that apply to specific situations and are never going to be widespread, e.g: “I feel similarly strongly about the let’s-cover-everything-in-cheap-mayo-and-call-it-salad movement.” The more I looked for these single-use hyphen-fests the more they appeared on my screen, in droves. I don’t know whether the phenomenon is on the rise – maybe, probably – but maybe I have only just started to notice the prevalence of this kind of hyphen buildup. And when are word-processors going to get wise to the fact that the ‘mayo’ example above is ‘really’ 10 ‘words’? I never realised how interesting hyphens are before – I’m sure much has been written about them so I am probably re-inventing the wheel in my ignorance.

  • Gill: I love the narwhal example – it reminded me of the ad for “Lipsmackinthirstquenchinacetastinmotivatingoodbuzzincooltalkinhighwalkinfastlivinevergivincoolfizzin Pepsi”, which I’m shocked to see came out back in 1973 – that dates me. No hyphens there, but then it was originally spoken rather than written, of course. This makes it exceptionally hard to decode, as you have to mentally spell out each chunk. Hyphens would make it much more intelligible.

  • A fun example from a book I’m reading, Edna O’Brien’s Girl With Green Eyes: “Ah, the bloom of you, I love your North-Circular-Road-Bicycle-Riding-Cheeks.”

  • I saw another nice example on a big official poster for Crufts dog show yesterday, advertising it as “A tail-wagging, fact finding, show stopping, un’fur’gettable family day out.” [sic] Spelling-wise, it is, appropriately enough, a bit of a dog’s breakfast – why not ‘fact-finding’ and ‘show-stopping’ (or ‘showstopping’, as the Macmillan dictionary has it)? (‘Spelling-wise’ is of course an example of another productive suffix: -wise.)

  • I spotted a slightly confusing example in a magazine advert for paint. Over a picture of hands upraised at a riotous party, with the background of a pink wall, is the slogan: All back to mine-proof colours. “What are ‘mine-proof colours’ and why should we all go back to them?” I wondered for a second. More hyphens would make it less confusing.

  • I’ll just share with you another couple of recent adverts that have words combined creatively to form compounds – though without hyphens. The first one has some very odd line breaks (and dodgy punctuation): “I am M&S schoolwear / I am shove / in a bag proof, / whatever the / weather proof, / splash proof, / I am completely / and utterly / school proof.” It’s interesting that they choose to make up the quirky compound “whatever the weather proof” instead of just using the established “weather proof”.

    The second is for Tesco: “Love every drumstick glazing sizzle braving pinny wearing smokey sauce soaked British chicken mouthful”. Note that there are no hyphens and no commas but, in the original advert, each compound is in a different shade of brown/gold – colour as punctuation?

  • Eliz: Many thanks for those. Colour as punctuation? It breaks things up visually in the same way, so why not?. But these ads are a bit OTT – I find myself muttering “Where will it all end? Where does creativity end and gobbledegook begin?” etc etc

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