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The Art of Hyphenation – Professional English Japanese Translation at Its Best

The hyphen is one of the trickier punctuation marks to use correctly. In this article, I shall attempt to clarify the main usages and clear up some common mistakes that affect the clarity and readability of translation.

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So, what is a hyphen and what role does it play? Firstly, we should perhaps look at what it is not. A fairly common misconception is that a hyphen is just another word for a “dash”. A dash, however, is longer and plays completely different roles, that of marking off non-essential information in the sentence or allowing a break in a sentence, in lieu of a colon or semi-colon.

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The main time you should use a hyphen is when it is necessary to show that two consecutive words in the sentence are inextricably linked and particularly when this removes ambiguity from a sentence. For example, “baby chewing toy” might be a description of a Facebook photo, while “baby-chewing toy” could be the title of a horror movie. Similarly, “I have a great uncle” expresses your fondness for your relative whereas “I have a great-uncle” simply states your relationship (he may be great as well but that is not indicated here).

The above is the primary usage, but hyphens are also used to attach prefixes to nouns (“pre-war”, “post-war”) or show word breaks, such as where physical space forces you to break up a word at the end of a line and carry the word on to the next line.

Now, let us look at some common errors. Remember that the primary purpose of hyphens is to remove ambiguity when connecting words, so there is no point in using it with words ending in “-ly” that are clearly modifying the verb. “This sentence is poorly-formed” is wrong usage. Another common error is breaking up words that do not need hyphenating. For example, the word is “nevertheless” and not “never-the-less”. Be frugal with your hyphens.  One tricky case is that of age. Generally, you would not use a hyphen when using “years” but use one for “year”. So, you might say “He is fifty years old but he acts like a twelve-year-old.” 

 Many words that were once hyphenated are no longer hyphenated such as “air-crew” becoming “aircrew”. The important thing is to pick a style and stick to it. Be stingy with hyphens but use them when you need to clarify your meaning, and make sure you thank the “twenty-odd people” rather than the “twenty odd people” that came to your party!

About the Author
Simon Way is a contributing author to SAECULII YK, the owner of Professional English Japanese Translation. Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news by Japanese Translation Services

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