The rules for the use of the hyphen in English are not clear. We struggle to formulate patterns, invent our own rules, or simply consult a dictionary and follow its recommendations. There are strong proponents of simply eliminating the hyphen, whenever possible.
But what are some of the cases where it is not possible, or at least not advisable, to remove them? OK, take for example, the following pairs of words below, which clearly have two different meanings:
Now these are purely orthographic – that is, we could say in effect the hyphen acts like a “letter”. Notice that the pronunciation changes too (Note: Coming soon in a new blog – What is the sound of a hyphen?)
And there are other grammatical uses of the hyphen. For example, think about the classic case below:
A small businessman
A small-business man
A small-business businessman
(Or of course, businesswoman)
One last remark that caused me to re(-)evaluate my own position on removing hyphens. First, as background, I am a linguist and have been dealing with grammatical case for 40+ years … nominative, accusative, dative, ablative, ergative, locative, agentive, etc. Well, this caused me to have a good laugh at myself when I came across what I thought was a new case (at least, one I had never heard of): the nonnative.
I saw this word in print, and given my personal word association, immediately thought “Ah. Oh yes, the nonnative case of….?” It took several minutes until I realized that, of course, the word was “non-native”.