The use of the hyphen in English varies from individual to individual. The words "ice-cream" and "co-operation" are often spelt "ice cream" and "cooperation." In fact, the use of the hyphen has become rarer than it used to be. Nevertheless, the hyphen can be used in a number of instances to clarify the intended meaning.
The word "recreation," meaning "entertainment," can be distinguished from "re-creation," the art of creating again, simply by the use of hyphenation. However, the meaning is usually clear from context alone. As a result, many writers do not make this distinction.
The phrases " a man eating whale" and "a man-eating whale" are distinct. The first phrase refers to a man who is eating whale. The second, however, refers to a whale that eats humans. The hyphen clarifies the meaning.
The phrases "two-hundred-year-old churches," "two hundred-year-old churches," and two hundred year-old churches" have different meanings. The first phrase means an indefinite number of churches that are two hundred years old. The second phrase means two churches that are one hundred years old. The final phrase means two hundred churches that are one year old. However, if the word "two-hundred" were replaced by the number "200," this three-way distinction would no longer be possible. Only the phrases "200-year-old churches" and "200 year-old churches" would be possible. The first phrase refers to churches that are 200 years old and the second to 200 churches that are one year old. With the use of the number "200," it is not possible to express the idea of two churches that are 100 years old. To express this, the number "200" must be spelt or the phrase must be paraphrased.
The use of the hyphen in English is less common than it used to be. However, the hyphen is still an important mark of punctuation. In certain cases, it can help to clarify the meaning of a phrase.