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
    – yoozer8
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 19:50
  • The questions is pro-grammar.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 10:28
  • Would re-pose and repose fit the bill, or I do simply mispronounce them to be identical? Commented Sep 18, 2012 at 23:09

3 Answers 3


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." Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 19:28
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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. Commented Jan 11, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 10:30
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    As I read this 2.5 years later, your insistence that all language is spoken strikes me funny. What about sign language? Surely there are other forms of semiotics besides what we would call speech that would qualify as language. And if there are, it follows that written words and sentence qualify as language as well. We have communicated for years, you and I, and yet nary a spoken word has passed between us.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 1:24

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. Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 19:21
  • @John Lawler: I wasn't being entirely serious. (Not like me at all.) Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 19:26
  • @John: I don't think the distinction is relevant. The OP asked about hyphenation, and Barrie gave perfectly good examples.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 19:30
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    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
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 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). Commented Jan 12, 2012 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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