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I was prompted by this question (difference between ecosystem and eco-system) to wonder whether word-hyphenation can ever be semantically significant.

My gut instinct is to say that since hyphenation is normally an intermediate step before a compound form becomes a single word, the answer should be "No". But if my experience here at ELU has taught me anything, it's that opinions often differ in matters of language usage.

I hate to ask something that looks like a request for a "list". A single undisputed example would do. Does the presence/absence of a hyphen ever change a compound word's meaning?

EDIT: I was specifically thinking of cases where a single "compound word" either does or doesn't have a hyphen, not where two component words may or may not be separated by a space. I understand whiteboard has a specific meaning distinct from white board - but if white-board exists at all, I at least can't distinguish that from whiteboard.

Cases such as rusty-nail cutter vs rusty nail-cutter also turn on which pair of the three words are "compounded", rather than whether the hyphen is present in the compound form.

More tellingly, I now see (hear?!) that, for example, re-creation and pro-verb are distinct from their unhyphenated equivalents. In the absence of contradictory examples, I'm starting to think any difference in meaning can only exist if it's accompanied by a difference in pronunciation.

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Obligatory relevant xkcd reference –  Jim Jan 11 '12 at 19:50
    
The questions is pro-grammar. –  Kris Jan 12 '12 at 10:28

5 Answers 5

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Word-hyphenation is not semantically significant, in any general sense. Semantics is about language, which is spoken; writing and punctuation are technology, not language. Hyphens are inaudible, therefore not part of language. And punctuation habits are way too unsettled and chaotic to depend on.

However, the fact that this question arises does show that many people don't know this. And that means that some people may well attempt to make word-hyphenation carry that kind of signficance.

They inevitably fail, unless they have some different way of pronouncing the hyphenation that catches on, and that people will accept as a different word or compound, pronounced differently. This almost never happens, of course. I know of no examples, for sure, outside of possible trademark-infringement suits, of which I am totally ignorant.

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Perhaps you could add to your answer a comment on proverb vs. pro-verb. Wikipedia says of the latter: "This term is always hyphenated, to distinguish it from the unrelated term proverb." –  jwpat7 Jan 11 '12 at 19:28
    
Commas are not audible either, but they can cause a semantic difference in what you read. –  Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 19:29
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Also unambiguous spoken. Punctuation -- and all of English writing -- is like Windows™; sometimes it works fine, and sometimes it does the opposite of what you expect, and sometimes it just crashes and you never figure out why. Like Garden Path Sentences, which are only confusing in print. –  John Lawler Jan 11 '12 at 20:06
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Also, I beg to differ: what I write is language, too. Language exists in many forms (sign language, anyone?), all of which are equally valid, and all of which have/contribute to semantics. –  Marthaª Jan 11 '12 at 21:04
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I have a pro-grammatical objection to your argument. (spellchek flagged the hyphenated form of pro-grammatic, as much as it flagged itself as well!) –  Kris Jan 12 '12 at 10:30

A couple of examples from Larry Trask. A rusty-nail cutter is not the same thing as a rusty nail-cutter. A nude-review producer is not the same thing as a nude review producer.

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Both are ways not of hyphenation being significant, but of hyphenation being used to reproduce a spoken distinction (in intonation and rhythm). And note that it's being used inconsistently; these are not the only ways they could be punctuated. –  John Lawler Jan 11 '12 at 19:21
    
@John Lawler: I wasn't being entirely serious. (Not like me at all.) –  Barrie England Jan 11 '12 at 19:26
    
@John: I don't think the distinction is relevant. The OP asked about hyphenation, and Barrie gave perfectly good examples. –  Mitch Jan 11 '12 at 19:30
    
I think the question is asking about cases where a non-hyphenated word has a different meaning than the same word with a hyphen added. These are simply examples of how combining noun phrases differently can lead to vastly different meanings. –  Marthaª Jan 11 '12 at 20:54
    
@Mitch: Per my edit to the question, Barrie's answer doesn't really address what I was asking about. In the case of such "triplets", the (often contrived) distinction is being made between some pair of words collapsed into one, as against the same pair separated by a space. I meant to ask about distinctions where the separator is either a hyphen, or simply doesn't exist at all (i.e. - no space). –  FumbleFingers Jan 12 '12 at 17:16

I think it can be semantically significant. Consider the term whiteboard. As a noun it means a white rectangle with a smooth surface that may be written upon with dry-erase markers, for purposes of business presentations and the like.

Now, if you have a structure — a garden shed, let's say — built of white boards, you would not call it a whiteboard structure, because that would imply something different. You would hyphenate it as a "white-board structure." This is true even though whiteboard itself originates from the concept of "a white board."

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Would re-pose and repose fit the bill, or I do simply mispronounce them to be identical?

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Think about postfeminism and post-feminism — how many additional meanings that little punctuation difference brings.

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Welcome to English Language & Usage. This is not a discussion site: all answers should actually answer the question, and explain why the answer is correct. Answers should also cite sources (except where the source is extremely obvious, and in that case the question is probably not suitable for the site anyway). Please edit your answer accordingly. Thanks. –  MετάEd Mar 25 '13 at 23:39
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I don't see a difference between postfeminism and post-feminism. If, as you say, the additional meanings are many, then certainly you could at least mention one. –  RegDwigнt Mar 25 '13 at 23:59

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 25 '13 at 23:59

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