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Use of hyphens when writing repeated compound words that has common parts

In German we can use a hyphen as indication that there is a continuation of the current word somewhere else in the sentence, such as in "hard- and software".

Other examples: "de- and reconstruction", "boy- or girlfriends", …

I haven't seen this use of a hyphen in English. But is the use of a hyphen allowed?


3 Answers 3


Yes, you can use that construction. It's known as a "suspended hyphen."

Here is the paragraph on "Suspended hyphens" from the Wikipedia entry on Hyphens

A suspended hyphen (also referred to as a "hanging hyphen" or "dangling hyphen") may be used when a single base word is used with separate, consecutive, hyphenated words which are connected by "and", "or", or "to". For example, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century may be written as nineteenth- and twentieth-century. This usage is now common in English and specifically recommended in some style guides. Although less common, suspended hyphens are also used in English when the base word comes first, such as in "investor-owned and -operated". Usages such as "applied and sociolinguistics" (instead of "applied linguistics and sociolinguistics") are frowned on in English; the Indiana University Style Guide uses this example and says "Do not 'take a shortcut' when the first expression is ordinarily open." (i.e., ordinarily two separate words).

I think as long as you don't make the reader stumble, suspended hyphens are fine. I personally would not use hard- and software because it makes the reader backtrack to fill in "ware" to come up with hardware.

  • 2
    Your answer contradicts itself. Note the restriction: "may be used when a single base word is used with separate, consecutive, hyphenated words". Nineteenth-century has a hyphen; so does investor-owned. But software and hardware are not hyphenated, so "soft- and hardware" is a no-no.
    – RegDwigнt
    Aug 22, 2012 at 18:06
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    @RegDwightАΑA, I think you could say something like socio- and politicolinguistics (if there is such a thing), though. And I did say that I would not use "hard- and software," didn't I?
    – JLG
    Aug 22, 2012 at 18:14

It reads oddly to me unless there are two hyphens.

So "de- and re-construction" looks better to me than the potentially ambiguous "de- and reconstruction": without thinking, it could be "destruction and reconstruction" or "deconstruction and reconstruction".

This means I would not like "hard- and software". Meanwhile "hard- and soft-ware" looks odd because I would not accept a mid-line hyphen in "software". Here I would prefer both to be spelt out.


EDIT: JLG's post at the same time as mine says it better. This part of my response is still relevant:

You will see some usage of the forward slash to indicate alternatives in compound words, particularly when indicating something that could be one of two choices depending on context. For example, when referring to a potential reader's beau, you might see the term "your boy/girlfriend". However as an IT person I've never seen "hard/software", probably because they really aren't opposites or two options on the same choice - they're completely separate things.

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