The remarkable difference the humble hyphen makes

The humble hyphenThe hyphen may be small, but its presence – or absence – in a word can make an enormous difference to the meaning.

The English language includes several instances of words where the decision to add or leave out a hyphen can matter. A lot.

And I made it my mission to find them…

It all started with a casual remark

The words that gave me the idea for this blog post were remark and re-mark (which I recently spotted being used incorrectly on a communication from school, no less).

To remark is to say as a comment or notice something, whereas to re-mark is to mark an exam paper again.

Other similar pairs of hyphenated words

Looking through my trusted copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I found several other pairs of words where the addition of a hyphen completely alters the meaning:

Recover (v) Get well again Re-cover (v) Put a new cover on
Redress (v) Remedy or set right Re-dress (v) Dress again
Reform (v) Make changes to something in order to improve it Re-form (v) Form or cause to be formed again
Represent (v) Be appointed to act or speak for Re-present (v) Present again
Reserve (v) Retain for future use Re-serve (v) Serve again
Resign (v) Voluntarily leave a job or position Re-sign (v) Sign (a document or contract) again
Resoluble (adj) Able to be resolved Re-soluble (adj) Able to dissolve or be dissolved again
Coop (n) Cage or pen for confining poultry Co-op (n) Cooperative organisation

Are you starting to see a pattern yet? It’s not hard to spot!

With each of the words in the second column, the prefixes re (once more) or co (joint/mutual) need to be followed by a hyphen to avoid confusion – distinguishing them from an existing word offering what would otherwise be the same spelling but a totally different meaning.

So, there you have it. Quite remarkable, don’t you think? Or should that be re-markable?!

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