A former colleague who regularly comments on the content of this column once asked why I thought it necessary to include a hyphen in the phrase "little-known fact". From another former colleague came this answer: "With the hyphen, the words clearly refer to a fact that not many people are aware of. Without the hyphen, it could refer to a small fact that is widely known."
Although the latter was correct in explaining the distinction, both had a point. As the original commentator observed, only the obtuse would misinterpret the phrase even without a hyphen. Despite my use of it in the phrase under discussion, I have no fondness for what seems the most annoying of all punctuation marks. This view leads me into controversial territory. For all my certainty that clarity is invariably the best guide, plenty of people militantly spray hyphens around at every opportunity. Most would probably agree that someone who is 28 is a 28-year-old person, and that we re-cover a seat if giving it a new cover but recover it if it has been lost and then found.
But hyphens also pop up in the oddest of places, and there is no straightforward split on the issue between different users of English. Americans do occasionally impose them with bewildering zeal, sometimes two at a time or as dangling hyphens (eg "fifth- and sixth-century art"). But the British cling on to them in compound words when other anglophones would do without. The French also demonstrate an insatiable appetite. A walk on the Left Bank of Paris might start in the Place Saint-Michel and continue along the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, though none of those four hyphens would pass my test of strict need.
The authorities I have consulted confirm that no hyphens are needed when adjectives have already been modified by adverbs ending -ly, as in highly paid, but we have all seen them slotted into such constructions. At least there is movement on both sides of the Atlantic towards removing hyphens except when absolutely necessary, a development I warmly welcome. In my style guide for The National, I suggested that when in doubt, writers should check modern editions of a good dictionary, our preference being the Concise OED.
But I added a warning that colleagues must expect inconsistencies. Why does the Oxford dictionary hyphenate counter-espionage but not counterterrorism? Why should we seek to counteract something but, if things turn nasty, counter-attack? Why, indeed, should my style guide resist hyphenation for vice president and secretary general when many other sources, literary and journalistic as well as academic, include the mark in one title or both (vice-president, says Oxford, but vice admiral, vice chamberlain and vice chancellor)?
We know roughly what hyphens are for: to separate syllables of the same word, join two or more words, provide a break in a word that overruns a line, emphasise meaning. In practice, they can be as confusing as their use is variable. Wikipedia has a detailed entry in which several instances of supposedly correct and incorrect usage appear. In some cases, the need for hyphens is not in doubt. There is obvious if amusing ambiguity in saying a fun-loving person is fun loving, and removal of the hyphen would alter the meaning of "how to wire-transfer funds".
But in the absence of definitive rules acceptable to all, we are back in the realm of personal or institutional choice. I would go so far as to say no one should lose sleep over the role of the hyphen, but suspect there are some teachers and editors who will go on tossing and turning for a while to come. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org