Punctuation

language blog okCould you please explain why some words in English are united with the dash symbol (-), for instance up-to-date, non-oil etc etc… Often I see the same words without dash in between, other times with it. Especially when the nouns are plurals, the letter S tends to disappear. i.e. 16-year-old.
Is there a specific rule in place on how and when it is better to adopt the dash during writing?
Thanks a lot.
Angelo

Unfortunately, punctuation, like spelling, is one of the great problems of English. There are plenty of rules and regulations, but they change over the course of time.  For example, the April issue of Speak Up contains an excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which was published in 1955. This contains the words “lady-friend” and “picture-postcard”: today it is the fashion to write “lady friend” and “picture postcard.” Not only that, punctuation varies from country to country (American punctuation is different from Canadian and British punctuation, for example), but there are also differences within the same country: one newspaper will use one particular punctuation system, another newspappunctuationer will use another.
But, in an answer to your question, “non-oil” and “16-year-old” are correct. So too is “up-to-date,” but some people would write “up to date”! 
Our advice is not to worry. A spelling mistake will look bad in a business letter or a CV, but a punctuation mistake won’t. And, seeing as you’re interested in the subject, we recommend David Crystal’s excellent book  Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation. You could also read (and listen to) our interview with him in the April 2016 issue. In it he points out that “Punctuation is purely a matter of convention.” He also claims that if you hand out a piece of unpunctuated text to a group of people and ask them to punctuate it, then no two versions will be the same.
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