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To hyphenate or not to hyphenate

October 30, 2012

There was a headline on the Yahoo website the other day which stated that some unfortunate person had been gunned-down. Not just gunned down. Gunned-down. I wonder why the writer of that report thought it necessary to insert a hyphen? It’s not the first time I’ve seen this odd mistake. A newsagent’s near me has a sticker on the till advising people to top-up their mobiles.

It stems from over-generalisation of a rule: that nouns formed from phrasal verbs are hyphenated. But that should just be the nouns, not the phrasal verbs themselves. Thus, we write, and say, ‘My phone needs a top-up’ (with hyphen) but ‘I need to top up my phone’ (without hyphen). Just so, we say ‘We are cleared for take-off’ but ‘The plane took off’. Note that this isn’t just a written difference. There is a difference in pronunciation too. The hyphenated noun is stressed on the first syllable, whereas the non-hyphenated phrasal verb is stressed either evenly or on the second syllable.

It’s not a serious mistake and it’s never likely to lead to misunderstandings, but it does annoy me. Needless hyphens look fussy, and show that the user is inattentive to the way words are formed. That the phrasal verb should not be hyphenated ought to be evident from the fact that the two parts are separable (‘I need to top my phone up’).

Maybe I should get-out more. Er, I mean get out more.

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