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I often get confused by the rules for using hyphens. According to this entry from the Oxford Dictionaries web site, I must always use a hyphen in these cases:

  1. Hyphens are used in many compound words to show that the component words have a combined meaning.
  2. Hyphens can be used to join a prefix to another word, especially if the prefix ends in a vowel and the other word also begins with one (e.g. pre-eminent or co-own).
  3. Hyphens can also be used to divide words that are not usually hyphenated.

Ok, with these three rules in mind, I suppose I should write living-room: after all, these two words have a combined meaning. To support this argument, I may say we write bedroom — one word only — which means we’ve combined bed and room to refer to one thing, the bedroom. So living room should either be hyphenated or written together as only one single word.

Equally, food handling department should be written as food-handling department even though as with living-room, I have never actually seen it written with a hyphen.

I am a bit confused. Isn’t hyphenating these words arguably a grammatical error, or does hyphen usage vary from one country to another? (I mean, for example, that perhaps in England they write living room, in Australia livingroom, and in Canada perhaps living-room.)


As tchrist pointed out in the comment section, hyphen usage has nothing to do with grammar. It's only a ortographic convention.

The reason I'm asking this question is: I once took an IELTS preparing course and there was a question whose answer was food-handling department but I wrote food handling department. My answer was considered to be wrong - according to the entity behind the course, food-handling department was the only acceptable answer.

Given hypen usage is only convention and not grammar, can we really say I got that question wrong?

marked as duplicate by Edwin Ashworth, tchrist, user66974, Rory Alsop, FumbleFingers Jul 14 '14 at 11:36

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    Hyphenation is a matter of orthographic convention and has nothing whatsoever to do with grammar. – tchrist Jul 13 '14 at 17:06
  • Sorry - what I'm trying to ask is whether not using hyphen in these cases is or isn't acceptable. Also, I'm trying to understand why a hyphen wasn't used in the cases I mentioned. Am no linguistic-savvy (with hyphen) so I don't really know whether this is grammar or naming convention. Either way, I would appreciate if someone could help me without being too picky with the words I've used. Apologies if my question is not 100% accurate in its words. – cldjr Jul 13 '14 at 17:18
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    The trouble with hyphens in English is that there are almost no actual rules. There are only rough guidelines and rules of thumb. Living-room, for instance, is not a form I have ever seen, except when the compound noun is used as an adjective where hyphenation is standard: living-room furniture or dining-room conversation. Food-handling department seems perfectly logical and fine to me, but then I’ve never seen that particular compound, hyphens or no hyphens, so I’m completely unbiased. The only rule is: do as the majority does; or for articles, etc.: as the editing authorities do. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 13 '14 at 17:29
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These compounds are so easily read without hyphens that you can definitely eliminate them. No ambiguity results by their omission. One would certainly not hyphenate "income tax queries" or "social security benefits." Some are just so common and clear enough that hyphens are certainly unneeded. Their inclusion is not incorrect either, though.

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In examples the hyphen is used almost as "parentheses" grouping words together. For example, food-handling department vs. food handling-department. In those cases they tend to be used to group words that are collectively qualifying a noun. Food handling department would still likely be understood even without the hyphen.

Similarly, living-room is not used because living is qualifying room, they are not coupled together in that way. On the other hand, for example, living-room furniture makes more sense as it clearly identifies furniture that is in a living room, rather than "room furniture" that is living. However, it is still understandable without the hyphen because the former is understood in context.

In these cases the hyphen is added when the writer has judged that clarity is needed to avoid ambiguity. Even then there are cases when it would be awkward and more context would be required (e.g. one-trick pony vs. one trick-pony to describe a single "trick pony" vs a pony with only a single trick, but that is very strange, and it would be less awkward to use context e.g. I only have one trick pony).

A lot of it is a matter of judgment and preference, although there is certainly an amount of convention in that it isn't entirely arbitrary. For example, something-like the hyphens in-this sentence would likely just raise an eyebrow. I'm not sure why your answer was marked incorrect.

Another time I see hyphens used in a similar manner is, colloquially, when joining a bunch of words into a phrase that acts as a single qualifier, for example, "Do we really need yet another cats-with-stupid-captions gallery web site?"

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