Should I write "cost-benefit" (hyphen) or "cost–benefit" (en dash), and why?

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    duplicate? english.stackexchange.com/questions/2116/… – z7sg Ѫ Apr 20 '11 at 21:31
  • @z7sg: I'm not sure. The answer to that question only covers en dashes for numbers ("'in years 1939–1945' or 'New York beat Los Angeles 98–95'"), but not for words (e.g. mother–daughter relationship or Paris–London flight). – RegDwigнt Apr 20 '11 at 21:45
  • @z7sg, to my reading, that thread doesn't explicitly answer this question -- its answers could argue for either form. – pilcrow Apr 20 '11 at 21:46
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    @RegDwight Perhaps the answer isn't clear enough but it does say: 'A hyphen is used to join words in a compound construction' That's the answer imo, and as for why I'm not sure how you could answer that. – z7sg Ѫ Apr 20 '11 at 21:47
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    The accepted answer for the other question clearly states that hyphens are used for joining "words in a compound construction." It seems it covers also the cost-benefit case. – kiamlaluno Jun 19 '11 at 2:50

Formally, hyphens are for joining terms, and en dashes are for ranges and distinctions. En dashes have a secondary application joining terms that are already hyphenated or contain spaces, but that doesn't apply here. In this situation I would use an en dash or a slash. Of course, if you do write it with a hyphen, nobody is going to be confused.

Technically, cost–benefit analysis can be interpreted as either [cost–benefit] analysis—an analysis of costs versus benefits—or cost–[benefit analysis]—costs versus an analysis of benefits. Luckily, the latter doesn't make any sense and would really only arise from deliberate pedantic misinterpretation.

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  • can you expand on this a bit? Are you saying you see "cost–benefit" as a range or a distinction? – pilcrow Apr 22 '11 at 15:00
  • @pilcrow: cost–benefit is a distinction; 3–4 is a range. Both use en dashes. – Jon Purdy Apr 23 '11 at 17:29
  • I wouldn't have phrased it as a distinction, but I see what you're saying. – pilcrow Apr 24 '11 at 15:32
  • I don't know why you were anonymously downvoted, Jon. +1 from me. – pilcrow Jun 19 '11 at 15:32

Nobody here has nailed it. Here's the answer:

In the construction "Pre–Civil War," the en-dash is correct because it modifies both "civil" and "war." What the OP is wondering is whether this idea carries over to "cost-benefit ratio" and of course you can see that it doesn't, because "benefit ratio" is not a compound term.

This is a very arcane bit of typesetting knowledge, and you'll see it observed only in the highest-end publications like New York Review of Books and The Economist.

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  • Thank you, Cerberus. It's taking me a very long time to master the formatting skills needed to do the kind of thing you just did. – The Raven Apr 21 '11 at 2:16
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    @TheRaven: I am using an Autohotkey script to type accents quickly and without effort. I type --qq for an n-dash and --xx for an m-dash. It appears immediately as I type. You can change the trigger strings at will. The AHK code I use is :*?:--qq::– for n-dash and :*?:--xx::— for m-dash. If you want this and need help, let me know. I also use e// for é, i'' for ï, etc. etc. I despise having to hold down shift/alt/control as much as using quotation marks as dead keys. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 21 '11 at 2:31
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    @The Raven, good answer, but your powers of mind reading ("What the OP is wondering...") have quite failed you. I'm familiar with use of an en-dash as a "super-hyphen," if you will, but that's not why I'd think to use it in this case. – pilcrow Apr 22 '11 at 14:10
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    In that case, the hyphen is correct. The only possible use of an en-dash in running text is as a "super-hyphen," as you put it, outside of its use as a marker for spans between numeric ranges. I generally follow the Chicago Manual of Style, but you don't have to. – The Raven Apr 23 '11 at 22:20
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    'It's taking me a very long time to master the formatting skills needed to do the kind of thing you just did.' and 'This is a very arcane bit of typesetting knowledge' lead me to query where 'correct / highest-end' becomes 'over-fastidious' or even silly. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 8 '14 at 14:14

There isn't a definitive single answer. The distinction between hyphens and en dashes has more to do with typesetting rules than usage.

In my experience, then, a hyphen is the sensible choice for uniting two words into a compound form. I don't actually have an en dash on my keyboard, and trying to signify one with a double dash makes matters worse. The word processing program you use may impose what it thinks is correct. I have not noticed what mine does.

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If you use a slash it might look even less ambiguous:

  • Cost/Benefit
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  • +1 Not bad (but not what I'll write). – pilcrow Apr 20 '11 at 21:31
  • @pilcrow: Why do you want either a dash or a hyphen? Just wondering. – Alenanno Apr 20 '11 at 21:52
  • It would be nice to receive an explanation on why I was down-voted. – Alenanno Jun 19 '11 at 17:27

In general use, it should be a hyphen. An en dash is usually used more for joining two compound modifiers (personal cost–society benefit).

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  • It's the other way around, actually. See my answer. – Jon Purdy Apr 21 '11 at 0:26

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