I almost turned down my first editing job because I was worried about making mistakes with hyphens. They are slippery little devils that cause a great deal of confusion.
Luckily, there are some easy-to-use tools that are a tremendous help with hyphens. Let’s take a look at them.
1. Your first step should be understanding why hyphens are necessary in the first place. Their job is to combine words that go together, as in this example:
Joe and Barbara are first-time home buyers. CORRECT
Joe and Barbara aren’t first home buyers, nor are they time home buyers. In this sentence, first and time have to go together. That’s why the hyphen is there.
2. Don’t use a hyphen if the two words don’t go together:
We need a short, catchy name for our project. CORRECT
The name will be short, and it will be catchy. The two words don’t go together. Use a comma, not a hyphen.
3. Don’t use a hyphen if there’s no noun after the two-word phrase:
Joe and Barbara are buying a home for the first time. CORRECT (no hyphen)
We’re painting that wall dark red. CORRECT (no hyphen)
A dark-red wall will add drama to the room. CORRECT (the hyphen is needed because dark red is followed by a noun, “wall”)
4. Don’t use a hyphen with -ly words (adverbs):
The happily smiling children skipped across the playground. CORRECT (no hyphen)
5. You need to know that hyphens tend to disappear over time. Week-end became weekend a long time ago. Back-yard is now backyard. Luckily your word-processing software will automatically flag and fix these for you. Pay attention to those red underlines on your screen!
6. If you’re really serious about getting it right (for example, you’re a paid editor, like me), do some research on the Internet. The truth is that hyphen usage varies. For example, some companies put a hyphen into e-mail; others don’t. There are lots of ambiguities.
At one of my previous jobs, people kept getting into huge arguments about whether world class should have a hyphen. I solved the problem by Googling “world class” to see what other businesses, agencies, and educational institutions are doing. Many of them chose not to use the hyphen, and we decided to follow their example. It’s a good way to settle disputes about hyphens and other writing issues.
Here’s another smart move you should consider: Ask if your workplace has a style sheet (a list of rules for thorny issues like hyphens). If it doesn’t, suggest that your workplace create one.
Having the rules in one place (is “healthcare” one word or two? do we use “catalog” or “catalogue” here?) can save everyone a lot of headaches. You can find many style sheets online that can help your company get started.