Out of all the punctuation marks, I find hyphens the biggest pain.
“Why hyphens? Why not commas?” you ask.
It’s true that people have the most problems with commas because commas have so many different uses. In our Punctuation for Fiction Writers book, the comma chapter is the largest one (40 pages). The second largest is the one on punctuating dialogue (23 pages), understandable since fiction writers tend to use a lot of dialog, and it can get complicated.
However, once you get a good handle on commas, most writers don’t have to think very hard about them too often.
Why are hyphens such an issue, especially since they’re used so much less than commas? (Don’t confuse the hyphen with the dash—they’re not the same in their use or function.) I’m not talking about the use of hyphens in telephone numbers and in some street addresses, or their use in breaking words at syllables to format printed pages.
Hyphens cause so many problems because they’re part of the spelling of a number of words: T-shirt, x-ray, make-believe, father-in-law, self-employed, two-thirds, cross-reference. Sometimes we have to use the hyphen to differentiate between two words otherwise spelled the same:
—After I recovered from the flu, I decided it was time to re-cover my old recliner chair.
—After the landlord released John from his rental agreement, he re-leased the apartment.
There is no end to the confusion in word spelling. Some words that used to be two words (sweat shirt) may or may not become hyphenated (sweat-shirt) before they become one word (sweatshirt). Look this one in older and newer dictionaries and you’ll find it listed all three ways. What’s interesting is that nearly every modern dictionary now shows it as one word while the supposedly most trusted American English dictionary (Merriam-Webster) in its online version still has it hyphenated.
There are so many common compound words like this that it’s impossible to remember them all. When I’m doing an editing job, I usually have to look up one or more compound words to see if they’re two words, one word, or hyphenated. The current push is toward eliminating hyphenated words as much as possible and to make them what’s called “closed” (one word). You even see “cellphone” in some places now.
But the purpose of this blog post is to zero in on one particular group of troublesome words, the “half” ones. Here are some examples to illustrate the magnitude of the problem—
half blood (or half-blood)
half note (in music)
half sister (but MS Word wants it hyphenated, which is not correct)
Note these examples:
The creature was half man, half beast.
The half-man, half-beast creature suddenly attached.
Then we have the use of “half” with verbs:
—We half-walked, half-crawled.
—He could only half-see inside the house.
—I half-dressed before I went to see what all the commotion was.
—I half-closed the window before I left.
—They half-expected something to leap down on them from the dense foliage above.
—She gave him a half smile and he half-smiled back.
There is rarely confusion when “half-” is part of an adjective precedes the noun. The rule is to always hyphenate it as you would any compound adjective, unless of course it’s already one word:
—The half-open door practically invited us to step inside.
—That’s a half-baked plan if ever I heard one.
—The halfdead body lay on the ground.
The problems come when the half-adjective follows the noun. But the biggest problem is that many “half” words can’t be found as separate entries in even a robust dictionary, especially verb. You won’t find most “half” verbs (half-heard) there. The general rule is to hyphenate the verb form as the National Geographic Style manual recommends (but see another thought on this below).
I found one reference with some good advice:
The audience was half-asleep.
Without the hyphen one might the sentence could mean meant that half those in the audience were asleep and half were awake. But in these sentences, there is no ambiguity: The man was half dead, The door was half open, The meal was half finished.
Using “half” in front of a verb can be tricky. One thought is to use the hyphen before transitive verbs but not before intransitive verbs: He half-turned the knob (transitive use) but He half turned and looked out the window (intransitive use).
(As a refresher, a transitive verb takes an object, while an intransitive verb does not.)
However, this suggestion contradicts the National Geographic Style Manual’s preferences and would have some of the sentences rendered differently:
—We half walked, half crawled. (intransitive, but it has a transitive feel here)
—He could only half see inside the house. (intransitive, although one could say that “inside the house” in an object and makes it transitive)
—I half dressed before I went to see what all the commotion was. (same here. By the way, MS Word wants this hyphenated, and if you add “myself” after the verb, then it becomes transitive)
—I half-closed the window before I left. (transitive)
—They half-expected something to leap down on them from the dense foliage above. (transitive)
My view is to go with the Nat. Geo. rule and to hyphenate the “half” verb unless it doesn’t make sense or would be confusing to do so. For the most part, I don’t think you can go wrong with hyphenating verbs. Therefore, I can see good justification for writing He half-turned and looked out the window.
I wish I could have found more references on how to treat “half” verbs, but my researches came up woefully short. If I manage to find better answers, I will update you and be sure to include the findings in the 2nd edition of our punctuation book.
In any case, I hope this has helped more than it confused you. Look the words up when unsure, but if you can’t find them, then use the guidance given here or your best judgment.