Extra marital sex? Or extra-marital sex? How to use the hyphen

Ahhh the poor hyphen. Of all the horizontal punctuation marks, it’s the shortest and fattest and a little bit unloved. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary culled 16,000 of the little blighters back in 2007, squishing previously hyphenated words together or dropping the hyphen completely.

The humble hyphen is used to join two or more words together to form a new meaning. Like this:

The mother-in-law is hilarious
It’s been a busy day. I need a pick-me-up
She’s loud but good-hearted
The equipment in the school is state-of-the-art
We operate in non-EU countries.
Her promotion was all very hush-hush
Steve in the marketing department is such a know-it-all

So what words have lost their hyphens?


Also, any words that have an e in front of them to denote electronic can lose their hyphen. This is 2015, not 1997. So elearning, enewsletter, and emarketing are all good. (Just for the record e-Newsletter or eNewsletter are not.) Likewise, remortgage and remarketing are all one word these days, not re-mortgage and re-marketing.

Some previously hyphenated words that are now two words

Ice cream
Fig leaf
Test tube
Love poem
Dog collar
Road bike

So login, log-in or log in?

Anyone who uses the internet to do just about anything will be asked at some point to log in or sign up. But often I’m asked to login too. So which is it?

Log-in or login is a noun or adjective

Go to your log-in (noun) and change your password.
Or please go to your log-in (adjective) page and update your personal details.

Log in is a verb. As is sign up. So doesn’t need a hyphen.

Please log in to your account and choose an option from the drop down.
Sign up now and receive £20 off with your first order.

As a rough rule, don’t use a hyphen unless it aids clarity

As Lynne Truss reports (she of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame), extra marital sex is very different to extra-marital sex.

Twenty-odd people came to my birthday party. Approximately twenty? Or was it twenty total weirdos?

The fact there will be more late night trains from this station is bad news. But more late-night trains sounds good.

250-year-old trees are very old trees. 250 year old trees are lots of little trees.

My great-uncle John is my nan’s brother. Or is great uncle John just a cool rellie?

He returned the stolen vehicle report. Did he steal the report? Or did he actually return a stolen-vehicle report?

Our language is constantly evolving. It was only five minutes ago that Samuel Johnson was quite merrily writing Oxford-street with a hyphen.

If you’re not sure check an online dictionary or a recently published OED or Merriam-Webster. That’s Merriam-Webster with a hyphen. For now.


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