In my experience, proof readers tend to be rather calm individuals, going about their work in an unruffled, dignified manner. Proof readers are rarely confrontational in temperament, because proofreading by its very nature requires a serene and reflective approach. So, it was rare for me, as an Operations Manager supervising, amongst other people, proof readers, to have to intervene in any kind of serious dispute.
Except when it came to hyphens.
To a proof reader, hyphens are like a red rag to a bull. There appear to be two distinct camps. On the one hand you’ve got your proof readers who can’t get enough of hyphens, proof readers who would happily mark-up an otherwise clean proof with an overabundance of little red dashes. And, on the other hand, you’ve got your anti-hyphen proof readers (or should that be ‘antihyphen’ or ‘anti hyphen’?). These guys would gladly see the hyphen put it into storage, to be taken out and dusted off on those rare occasions where context alone is insufficient to infer meaning.
My personal leanings are toward the second camp. There was nothing more infuriating than seeing a proof limp toward the finish line simply because of a few hyphens (particularly when it’s holding up an entire forme and the head of the print department is having a monumental hissy fit).
Given my personal feelings on this matter, it’s probably best if I hand over to an independent authority: the Plain English Campaign.
The following is from their excellent website:
The main use of a hyphen is to join two or more words together.
Sometimes a word needs a hyphen for it to be spelt correctly. For example:
In some situations there are no hard and fast rules and the use of hyphens is a matter of personal preference. However, there are some guidelines on when you should use them.
In compound adjectives (single adjectives formed from two or more words) that appear before a noun
• An up-to-date guide is a guide that is up to date.
• Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance is a benefit that is based on your income.
• An energy-efficient fridge is one that is energy efficient.
These hyphens are often necessary to avoid confusion. For example:
• A blue-collared shirt is a shirt with a blue collar, while a blue collared shirt could be a blue shirt that has a collar.
• A French-dictionary salesman is a man who sells French dictionaries, while a French dictionary salesman could be a Frenchman who sells dictionaries.
• A red-wine bottle is a bottle for red wine, while a red wine bottle could be a wine bottle that is red.
To distinguish one word from a similar one
• re-sort, not resort
• co-op, not coop
• re-form, not reform
Some words formed with a prefix are always hyphenated.
With some prefixes, a hyphen is not necessary but is preferable to help with pronunciation, avoid a double vowel, or stop a word looking odd.
When numbers between 21 and 99 are written out in full
• one hundred and thirty-four (Note that only ‘thirty-four’ is hyphenated.)
Remember, us proof readers are a relatively small group. We need to stick together. So, let’s not fight.
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My name's Mike Sellars and I'm an experienced proofreader and the author of The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course. Click here to find out more about me.
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