Strange how many people draw the line at drawing that little line, so they don’t draw the line! This label takes the biscuit – well, is attached to a pack of biscuits – and illustrates the point… er, hyphen.

I would hardly be surprised if nobody can see anything amiss with what is written thereon, even if I point out the ‘egg free’. What does that mean, though? It means that one is getting an egg at no cost, or that it contains an egg that is not a captive. All it needs is one tiny dividing line, and it says what it is meant to: ‘egg-free’ means that no egg appears in the concoction.

As I have mentioned before, a good rule for hyphens in any combination of words is to consider whether, in the sense you are writing them, there would be a tendency in speech to say them differently, with stresses in different places, as one does automatically when words are grouped together to form a single concept. Note how you would normally say, ‘The run down car would hardly run down the hill”. The first would be said as ‘rundown’. Here, the reader would mentally fill in a hyphen anyway, but it makes it that much easier if it is done for one, to produce ‘run-down car’.

Not too many grouped words will have a completely different meaning without the hyphen/s, but the fact is that many examples of this do occur, and are easily missed. ‘He saw a man eating crocodile’ (in a restaurant) or, ‘He saw a man eating crocodile’ (in the river – there it is essential to put ‘man-eating crocodile’). Therefore I would disagree with Winston Churchill, who argued against their use. I feel that it is better to use hyphens wherever they are indicated, because they always make it that much easier to recognise a grouping of words as such, particularly in large-number-of-word collections!

In fact, I would go as far as to say that leaving out any hyphens, where words are grouped, is a discourtesy to the reader. Punctuation is there to make it as easy as possible to get the sense of the words as they would have been spoken by the writer. Hyphens are one of the essential tools in doing so.


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