The helpful hyphen

Lynne Truss is sadly confused about hyphens. In her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the nation’s favourite punctuation stickler throws up her hands and declares that

“hyphen usage is just a big bloody mess and is likely to get messier.”

We will have no truck with this kind of defeatism at Clarity. We insist that all that matters is whether a hyphen is helpful or not. If I want to illustrate the importance of hyphens, I ask people to hyphenate the words “black cab drivers”. Of course it all depends whether you wish to talk about cab drivers who might suffer racist abuse from BNP supporters (black cab-drivers) or whether you simply mean drivers of black cabs (black-cab drivers).

The principle is a simple one: when two words are being used as a single adjective or a single noun, they should be hyphenated.

So “rate of return regulation” makes you wonder what return regulation might be, whereas “rate-of-return regulation” is clearly about regulation related to rates of return. Similarly, we make “energy intensive corn based process” much clearer by simply adding a couple of hyphens and, ideally, a comma, so that the reader is instantly aware that we are talking about “an energy-intensive, corn-based process”.

What could be simpler than that?