First, let's get clear about what a hyphen is and is not. The hyphen is the shortest of the "dashes" — so short that it's not even called a dash.
You also have the en dash, or short dash, which is longer than hyphen. And you have the em dash, or long dash, which is the longest.
Today we're talking about hyphens. As an editor, I look up hyphen-related questions more than I look up anything else related to style or grammar.
A week ago, I taught a course to translators, and I had written "nonconfrontational" on the board as part of an example sentence. One of the students asked me if putting a hyphen after "non" was wrong.
My answer was "no." First, the use of hyphens is considered "style." Style is based on preference rather than rules. If, however, you work for an organization that always uses a hyphen after "non," then that's the "house rules." Another time, you could easily work for an organization that never uses hyphens after "non."
My general approach to situations where I can go either way, such as in my blog or when teaching, is as follows:
Below, I have provided links to my favourite style guides. If all style guides write "colearn" instead of "co-learn," I choose colearn — even it if "looks" weird.
I do not Google a word to see how many uses of each kind of spelling I can find. Why? Because most people spell atrociously on the Internet. Google is not a style guide. It's random — not stylized.
Canadian Style for Hyphens: Great, free resource that is easy to navigate and is right at your fingertips.
American Psychological Association (APA) for Hyphens: Usually used for academic writing, but it's another place to look. And here are APA's General Principles of Hyphenation.
Chicago Style: Chicago is widely used for nonfiction. I've mostly used it for indexing, but the online hyphenation table has been invaluable — especially if you've ever wondered where to put the hyphens for all the phrases with "years old" and "year old"!
Remember — consistency is key!! If you use "co-habitate" sometimes and "cohabitate" other times in your document or within your organization's communications, you're being inconsistent and raising questions in the readers' mind.
Keep a style menu to keep track of your style choices. You can download a sample one below.
Meet the Editor
I'm Coreen, and I am a copy editor, writer, instructor, digital marketer, and student of PR and Communications for organizations doing positive work in the world.