From Chapter 2, 'Spelling and Usage'

2.3   Hyphens

Hyphens should be used only when they have a specific purpose. They occasionally occur within the body of a word, particularly with re- followed by ­e (e.g. re-echo, re-enter), but they normally indicate that two or more words are to be read as a single word with only one main stress. The examples given below show forms that are attributive and have a single main stress and are therefore hyphenated, while predicative and other forms having two main stresses are not hyphenated:

a well-known fact     the facts are well known

a tenth-century manuscript     in the tenth century

Nevertheless, to avoid a proliferation of hyphens and where there is no possibility of ambiguity, forms such as a late eighteenth-century novelist, post-Second World War difficulties, are to be preferred to a late-eighteenth-century novelist, post-Second-World-War difficulties.

In phrases such as pre- and post-war governments, pro- and anti-abortion movements, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, where two or more parallel hyphenated terms are combined, the first hyphen is followed by a space.

Adverbs ending in -ly and other polysyllabic adverbs are not hyphenated to a following adjective or participle:

a highly contentious argument

a recently published novel

a handsomely bound volume

a frequently occurring mistake

a hitherto unrecognized custom

ever increasing quantities

Collocations of certain monosyllabic adverbs (in particular ill but not well — see above) and a participle often have only one main stress and are therefore hyphenated even when used predicatively:

He is very ill-tempered.

Such a course of action would be ill-advised.

These prejudices are deep-seated.

Note that, unlike the words early, late, north, south, etc., the prefix mid- always requires a hyphen (except where it forms part of a single word, as in midnight):

The boat sank in mid-Atlantic.

a mid-June midnight flight

a mid-sixteenth-century chair

until the mid-nineteenth century

The presence or absence of a hyphen is often significant:

two-year-old dogs     two year-old dogs

a deep-blue lake     a deep blue lake

a vice-chancellor     the vice squad

to re-cover     to recover

There is considerable variation in the use of hyphens. Usage shifts over time and forms that were once entirely acceptable may now seem odd or old-fashioned. Some words that used to be hyphenated have now become so common that they are regarded as single unhyphenated words:

battlefield, bookshelf, paperback, subcommittee, subtitle

In short, if a compound is in frequent use and is pronounced as a single word it is usually acceptable to write it as one word without a hyphen. The best advice is to use a good dictionary and to be consistent.

Contents • Back to 2.2  Diacritics • Forward to 2.4  Quotations • Index