Hyphens Are Your Friend – Use Them in Newspaper Searching


​Finding your ancestors in newspaper articles is in my opinion – an art, not a science. One must be clever and resourceful to get around the limitations in old newspapers, whether they be poor original quality, copies of copies as sources for scanning, as well as the limitations of the OCR process.

Another “feature” of older newspapers is the use of the hyphen. Hyphenated words were often used because of fixed width type as well as the experience and capability of the typesetter. Hyphens are less utilized today but were heavily used years ago. 

The bottom line is that if you search for a portion of your ancestor’s surname, rather than the entire word, you may get additional results. For example, if your ancestors name was “Jorgenson” try searching for “Jorgen.” The typesetter may have split the word so that at the end of one line are the letters “Jorgen-” with the hyphen, and the next line may start with “son”.

I have an ancestral line with the surname “Braunhart”.  Many times an article may have a line that ends with “Braun-” and the next line starts with “hart”.  This creates some additional challenges, just like “Williamson” may be split up as “William” and “son”.  The first set of letters ends up being a very common set of letters so your results may be too numerous to be of much help.

Below is an example of how often hyphens have been used. In this case 6 times in two short paragraphs.


​Here are a few examples that show the different uses of the hyphen. And always consider that the “break” may not always be in the logical place in the word.



In the first case you could search for “Patter” when your target name was “Patterson”

In the second case, even a short word like “Hardie” is split up, so you would search for “Har”.  This may lead to too many results but is worth a try.

Be open minded about where the split may occur.  In the third case I wouldn’t think that the name would be split this way, but searching for “McDon” may lead to many more results.

Don’t give up and remember that hyphenated words give you additional opportunities and additional searches. 


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1 Comment

  1. This is a good reminder. I have adjusted some search practices to OCR output such as creative misspellings, but I haven’t done the partial name search very often.

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