In the previous article, we looked at the hyphen rule of thumb:
Use hyphens to show that a multiple-word adjective functions as a single unit.
That rule covers ninety percent of hyphen uses. The other ten percent seems confusing, because it involves a wide variety of rules and no-no’s. I do not want to bog you down in rules, dear reader. With that avoidance in mind, I will not list all of the rules and odd uses of hyphens here. However, I should touch on a few of the most frequent points of confusion.
If you are interested in learning more about the nitpicky rules of hyphens, I recommend C. Edward Good’s handbook, A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Although there are many good books that explain the general use of hyphens, no book I have encountered goes into the detail that Good’s book covers. Check it out.
In the meantime, here are a few further points on hyphen use. . . .
Don’t Confuse the Hyphen with Its Longer Cousin–the Dash.
The dash (which I used in this section’s title, just above) is twice as long as the hyphen. In fact, in most word-processing programs, the dash is formed by typing two hyphens in a row. Today, word-processing applications have nifty auto-format features that recognize two adjacent hyphens and run them together to form an uninterrupted dash, like the one seen in this section’s title. But this was not always the way dashes looked. In the ancient days of the typewriter, before the development of word-processing programs like MS Word (when early humans hunted the wooly mammoth), people simply typed two hyphens to represent the dash. The two hyphens would have a small space between them and would not appear as the single long line we are accustomed to seeing in twenty-first-century documents. (To my students’ amusement, this double-hyphen dash is what I call an old-school dash.)
The point of this spiel on hyphens and dashes? Simple: Many people see hyphens and call them dashes. The first step to understanding the difference between these two distinct forms of punctuation is to identify them correctly. The difference, after all, is clear:
While we are on the topic, what are dashes? Think of a dash as replacing a comma or colon to show a spontaneous change or interruption in a sentence. Its functions are completely different from those of the hyphen. Their only similarity is that they are both horizontal lines that occur between words.
Here are three previous Writer’s Toolbox articles that discuss dashes:
Use Your Own Judgment: Hyphenate to Avoid Confusion.
Although there may be no rule for hyphenating a given term, writers sometimes hyphenate to avoid ambiguity. In fact, for purposes of achieving clarity, writers sometimes choose to hyphenate even if it goes against the core rules of hyphenating. Here is an example (taken from Good’s book) of such a situation:
The article was thought provoking.
Is the writer saying . . .
People thought that the article was provoking (which means they probably didn’t like it)?
. . . or is the writer saying this? . . .
The article provoked thought in people (which means it was received well)?
Well, the original sentence (with no hyphens) states that people found the article provoking—that is, the article tended to anger readers. To express the second message—the idea that the article provoked thought—the writer would need to use a hyphen to connect thought and provoking:
The article was thought-provoking.
See how that works? Now the message is clear because thought-provoking acts as a single adjective to describe the article. Although we would not normally hyphenate a noun and an –ing word to create an adjective, we would need to do so in the sentence above. This example breaks the hyphenation rules to follow a higher rule: always make the message clear for your reader.
Another -ing term that I like to hyphenate is word-processing, when I use it as an adjective for another noun. Notice that in the first sentence, word is the adjective describing the (gerund) noun processing:
Ed admitted that he is not very good at word processing.
However, in this second sentence, I am using word-processing as a single adjective for programs:
Still, Ed is trying to improve his proficiency with word-processing programs like Microsoft Word.
Do Not Use Hyphens between –ly Adverbs and Adjectives.
In addition to modifying verbs, adverbs can modify adjectives. This is different from a multiple-word adjective. If you are confused as to what an –ly adverb is, it is a word that combines an adjective and an –ly suffix. This forms an adverb, which most often modifies verbs. In the same way that the adjective tells us what kind of noun it is, an adverb tells us how the verb is done. Remember, though, that adverbs can also modify adjectives. Whether the –ly adverb modifies a verb or an adjective, remember that it should not be hyphenated with the verb or adjective that follows it. Confusing? Here are some examples:
I hope to write a widely acclaimed book. (Not: widely-acclaimed book)
The barely new car broke down in a busy intersection. (Not: barely-new)
And, if all this talk of adjectives and adverbs has you confused, just remember:
If a word describing how some action is done ends in –ly, do not hyphenate it with the word that follows.
Got it? (Of course you do!)
Use Hyphens in Words That Would Otherwise Be Confused for Other Words.
Here are some examples of words that may need hyphens to clear up ambiguity:
re-create (to remake or simulate)
recreate (to have fun)
Or, how about this one:
un-ionize (a chemistry term, the opposite of ionize)
unionize (to form a union)
Use Hyphens to Form Some Compound Nouns.
In the previous hyphen article, we looked at compound adjectives: adjectives formed from multiple words. Hyphens also join some compound nouns: nouns that are formed by more than one word. Some is the key word.
Here are some examples of hyphenated nouns, some of which I have drawn from C. Edward Good’s chapter on hyphens:
Self-control (Words beginning with self– are hyphened. See section below.)
Notice that these hyphenated nouns follow the same general rule as multiple-word hyphenated adjectives: the hyphens show that the joined words form a single unit (whether a noun or an adjective), and that the resulting hyphenated term is to be treated as one word.
Hyphen Finer Points
Here are some even finer points on hyphen use:
1. Use hyphens to express a range of numbers, essentially replacing the word through.
For tomorrow’s class, I have asked my students to read pages 12-35.
(Note: In a good word-processing program, this hyphen is actually a shorter version of the dash called “an en dash.” This en dash is shorter than the normal em dash, but longer than a hyphen. The best way to form an en dash in most word-processing programs is by typing the two hyphens between the numbers, but with spaces before and after the double-hyphen. However, in many programs, the en dash is not an option, so a hyphen will have to do.)
2. Hyphens and fractions:
Hyphenate fractions that are spelled out and used as adjectives, but do not hyphenate the whole number (if there is one). The whole number should be isolated from the fraction part:
I ran two and one-half miles yesterday. I am not feeling well today.
(If this rule seems confusing, just remember that it reflects the numerical form: by being written to the left of the fraction, the whole number is separated from the fraction: 2½. The lack of hyphenation reflects the numerical separation.)
3. Hyphenate terms involving self + some other word.
Natalie is an intelligent but self-conscious student. I wish she would answer more questions.
However . . .
If any prefix is added before self, the word is simply written all together. We call this a closed compound word (as opposed to a hyphenated compound word). Look at the following examples:
selfish behavior (added –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)
unselfish behavior (added un- prefix and –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)
Or, to look at our previous hyphenated example:
self-conscious student (hyphenated)
unselfconscious student (prefix –un, so closed)
The Final Hyphen Rule: When It Comes to Hyphens, Dictionaries Are Our Friends.
There are many more odds-and-ends rules for hyphens. However, I write to express the core function of the hyphen: to join words for purposes of avoiding ambiguity. If you understand that rule, you’re golden.
Still, there are often no hard-and-fast rules for why one term might be hyphenated while another is not. Knowing whether to hyphenate such terms is ultimately a matter of consensus–a matter of people agreeing to a certain convention or practice. So, how do we know what the grammar gods have to say about hyphenating a given term?
Here is a nice trick for any hyphen situations I have not addressed here: if you are unsure whether a term should be hyphenated, consult a dictionary. Terms that are not hyphenated will have a dot between the syllables, while words that are hyphenated will have a hyphen in place of the dot. Look carefully, and you’ll see the difference.
So, dear reader, go out and hyphenate freely! And as you fill the world with hyphens, remember: it’s all about making things clear for your reader.
Related Question: Is It “Everyday” or “Every Day?”
In these hyphen articles, we have looked at how the hyphen joins two separate words into a single part of speech. In most cases, the hyphen functions to create multiple-word adjectives. However, there is one other way to join words: just join the terms completely into one seamless word. This practice accounts for the difference between terms like every day and everyday. Often my students (incorrectly) use these two terms interchangeably, but occasionally some students think to ask, “Which one is correct?–Should it be every day or everyday?” The answer: it depends! And what it depends on is precisely the same concept behind hyphenated multiple-word adjectives.
If this everyday usage bothers you seemingly every day, then you should check out the next article before we move on to other punctuation techniques. Here’s the link to that article:
Good, C. Edward. A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, Me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Herndon: Capitol Books, 2002. Print.
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).