I have a question regarding the use of hyphens. My native language is German, and there is a set of rules regarding hyphenation. There are mandatory and optional rules for it.

Now, Consider the following 2 sentences:

This template is distributed under the MIT license. For license details, please read: LICENSE.txt.

In German the hyphen in: MIT license (MIT-Lizenz) is mandatory by rule 28 (according to "Duden" -- see link above), because MIT is an abbreviation. On the other hand, licensing details would actually be written as Lizenzbestimmungen, but you could use a hyphen (Lizenz-Bestimmungen) to clarify one part and make it more readable (rule: 23).

When exactly are hyphens mandatory in the English language?

  • You do not say which authority says that some usages of hyphens in German are mandatory. Is there an overall ruling body? Far too often, people submit things like 'You have to use ...' on ELU citing the views / recommendations of one institution / linguist / style guide as if they were gospel. Shall I cite the 'rule' that proper adjectives should be capitalised in English? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 '15 at 21:58
  • I refer to the "Duden" this is - the - official dictionary and grammar rulebook of the german language. – Mathias Vonende Jun 7 '15 at 22:01
  • 1
    There is no such work in English. There are more and less prestigious dictionaries (OED being the usual final arbiter, though it contains less than about 60% of 'acknowledged' English words) and grammars ('The Syntactic Phenomena of English'_James D McCawley being perhaps the best, though by no means definitive). English is largely descriptivist rather than prescriptivist. And it changes. This includes favoured punctuation styles also. Look up articles on English hyphen usage here and on the internet. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 '15 at 22:09
  • 4
    With regard to your actual example, one major difference between English and German grammars is that German very often forms compounds by agglutination, while English very rarely does. In both of the examples you give in German, the hyphen is used because normally the components would be agglutinated into a single word, but in these cases such a word would be awkward, and so a hyphen is used instead. The reason no hyphen is used in the English text you quote is simply because the normal way of forming compounds in English leaves the components as separate words without agglutination. – Yoav Kallus Jun 7 '15 at 22:41
  • 3
    In English, hyphenation depends on usage. Take, for example the phrasal verb "log in" which is open (two words when used as a verb: " please log in"— usually hyphenated when used as an adjective: "log-in screen"—and usually closed (conjoined) "login ") when used as a noun: "User password is validated at login." That's one "rule". However, I estimate that over half of computer-literate people in the US do not know that rule, or do not apply it properly. And they are who build the web sites. – Brian Hitchcock Jun 8 '15 at 8:56

As others have stated, there are no absolute authorities or rules on English punctuation. However, there are certain guidelines that are helpful. Rather than putting my foot in my mouth by trying to list or explain such guidelines, I point you to two useful resources.

I recommend you read there not only about hyphens, but about en-dashes and em-dashes as well, as people (even native speakers) are often confused about when to use which.

Keep in mind that the above references are only two author's opinions. They are not "cast in stone". Others here can probably point to other good resources re hyphenation.

(I specifically do NOT recommend Eats, Shoots and Leaves, because Ms. Truss does not distinguish between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes; rather, she calls them all "dashes".)

Again, remember that opinions vary. See, for example other questions about hyphens on this forum. [editors please add link?]

  • 2
    I would tend to agree with Ms. Truss about en-dashes and em-dashes. There's no real point in making anybody but printers learn all the rules about which kind of dash to use where – you can use en-dashes everywhere and have your writing look perfectly good. The only reason there are multiple kinds is that printers tried to make their texts look perfect. Hyphens are different, though; they should only be used to join words. – Peter Shor Jun 8 '15 at 10:17
  • I agree that hyphens should be used only to join words. As for dashes, it's impossible to "agree" with Ms. Truss in regard to en-dashes and em-dashes, because she does not mention them. She says in her book that she had only recently ("last week") learned how to produce a "true dash" on her Apple keyboard using Alt+hyphen — I'm not sure which kind of dash that produced)). Up till then, she says, she had been using hyphens as hyphens, and two consecutive hyphens to indicate a "dash". – Brian Hitchcock Jun 10 '15 at 6:13
  • She does mention the "double dash" (by which I presume she means the em-dash)—but there doesn't seem to be a single instance of an em-dash in the entire book. If she used any, apparently the (British) printers collapsed them all into en-dashes. So it is—to put it mildly—confusing to try learning about en-dashes amd em-dashes from Eats, Shoots & Leaves. – Brian Hitchcock Jun 10 '15 at 6:13
  • You may enjoy the New Yorker's review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: newyorker.com/magazine/2004/06/28/bad-comma – Rodney Atkins Nov 4 '17 at 4:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.