How the Pros Use Hyphens

When I first became an editor, I was afraid of hyphens. They seemed complicated and slippery, and I could envision myself getting into huge disagreements with clients about them.

As time went by I learned that hyphens aren’t complicated, but they indeed are slippery – and I really did get into some fierce battles about them.

Here are the basic rules about hyphens. There are some simple concepts you need to keep in mind: the number two, the phrase “person, place, or thing,” and the -ly ending that appears at the end of adverbs. (And yes, I’ll get to the slippery issue in just a minute!)

1. Use a hyphen when two words go together AND they’re followed by a person, place, or thing. (If you’re comfortable with the grammatical term “noun,” you’re ahead of the game.)

The “two words go together” requirement is pretty straightforward. Let’s look at some examples.

The big, crunchy candy bar. (Big and crunchy are separate qualities: No hyphen.)

The Swiss-chocolate candy bar. (It’s not a Swiss bar: Swiss goes with chocolate. Use a hyphen.)

My new electronic key. (New and electronic are separate: No hyphen.)

My back-door key. (It’s not a back key: Back goes with door. Use a hyphen.)

His long, expensive trip. (Long and expensive are separate: No hyphen.)

His long-lost love. (She’s not long: Long goes with love. Use a hyphen.)

2. The “followed by a person, place, or thing” requirement isn’t hard either, but this is the point that writers often forget. Always look for that noun before you insert the hyphen.

Here are some examples, with the noun (person, place, or thing) in bold:

I always bring back some Swiss chocolate when we go to Switzerland. (no hyphen)

This Swiss-chocolate bar is delicious. (hyphen)

I’m shopping for a holiday card in Polish for my grandmother (no hyphen)

I’ve crossed some names off my holiday-card list. (hyphen)

He seems to be hard nosed about changing the policy. (no hyphen)

His hard-nosed attitude is going to get him into trouble. (hyphen)

3. DON’T use a hyphen with an adverb (usually an -ly word). This one always makes my fingers itchy. I want to put that hyphen in! Nope – leave it out.

This was a poorly planned conference. (no hyphen)

The hotly contested election had to be decided by a runoff. (no hyphen)

We’re going to reject the badly designed poster. (no hyphen)

What about well? Yes, it’s an adverb – but most writers use a hyphen (see Rule 2) when a well phrase is followed by a noun:

That’s a well-written book. (hyphen)

That book is well written. (no noun – no hyphen)

We want a well-rounded person for that position. (hyphen)

Two years in a European university have made her well rounded. (no noun – no hyphen)

4. Here comes the slippery part. Hyphens tend to disappear over time, for two reasons: They slow you down when you’re typing, and they’re ugly (at least I think so).

For example, week-end gradually evolved into weekend, and many people (I’m one) never use hyphens in e-mail and e-book.

Of course this slippery factor can lead to disagreements. I once worked for a business that for years had used the phrase world class service without a hyphen in its mission statement.

When I was hired as editor, I decided not to insert the hyphen even though it was technically correct: It looked ugly, and the company would have had to reprint many of its publications.

A small war erupted. I held fast, and since I had already Googled world class, I was able to reassure the company that many other organizations didn’t like the hyphen either (Yale University was one).

So you have permission to use your own judgment when you start to feel funny about a particular hyphen. (Google can be a great help if you need to defend your decision.)

And that’s everything you need to know about hyphens. The rules aren’t all that difficult to learn, and that slippery factor makes hyphens interesting to use. Have fun!

Jean Reynolds, Ph.D., is a longtime English professor, a Shaw scholar, and the author of seven books, including two writing textbooks.

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