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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE! Illustration - Photo by Nikki Dawes

People get hyped about hyphens.

Hyphens are tricky creatures that can't be summed up in a few words. They are sometimes overused, other times underused. They follow a few rules then haphazardly ignore a slew of others.

How's that for frustrating?

The essential function of a hyphen is to link words or parts of words for the sake of clarity.

We use hyphens to join two words to form a phrase:




Hyphens also link two or more words that describe the thing that follows:

broken-bat single

blue-eyed baby

fast-moving train

up-to-the-minute results

less-than-gubernatorial style

It gets confusing because you use a hyphen when the descriptive phrase comes before the thing, but you don't when the phrase comes after:

The chocolate-frosted cake was decadent.

The decadent cake was chocolate frosted.

She is a full-time worker at Wendy's.

She works at Wendy's full time.

But that rule has an exception too.

If the description happens after a form of the verb "to be," you keep the hyphen in both cases if you need it to avoid confusion.

This apple pie is second-to-none.

How sad that this author is little-known.

We also use hyphens to avoid confusion between words that are similar to each other but that have different meanings:

• Re-sign means to sign a second time.

Resign means to quit a job.

• Re-cover means to cover again.

Recover means to get better.

Hyphens go with words beginning with all-, self- and ex- or those ending with -elect:





Some hyphens are called "hanging":

What happens when warm- and cold-blooded animals share a habitat?

The hyphen after "warm" signals that "blooded" goes with it as well as with "cold."

Wrong: They have enabled the five-inch gun crew to iron out the problems.

Right: They have enabled the five-inch-gun crew to iron out the problems.

You need the hyphen so readers know the crew handles five-inch guns and don't wonder whether the crew is a mere 5 inches tall.

Other favorites of mine:

The small-business owners are to meet for lunch.

The hyphen is there so that you don't think that pint-size business owners are having lunch.

A little used car is a small auto that is not new.

A little-used car is one that doesn't get on the road very often.

In the second sentence, "little" goes with "used," so you need the hyphen.

I saw a headline like this recently:

Frozen food magnate is selling his Lawrence Park home

We might need a thermometer to determine whether this is a food magnate who has been overchilled or a magnate of frozen food. But likely we'd use:

Frozen-food magnate is selling his Lawrence Park home

Next we have the judgment calls.

I consider it OK to use "high school teacher" with no hyphen. I don't think readers will think I am talking about a teacher who is high on something. Others believe that phrase needs a hyphen.

The Associated Press thinks health care and child care should be two words in all cases. An editor friend disagrees. He would use hyphens in these cases:

health-care network

child-care program

Here's an example of the anarchy that marks the hyphen world.

"Follow-up" has a hyphen when it's a noun and no hyphen when it's a verb.

But "double check" does not have a hyphen when it's a noun, but it has a hyphen when it's a verb.

Sources: Oxford Dictionaries,, Washington State University, The Associated Press Stylebook, Washington Post, Purdue University, Fowler's Modern English Usage, The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein

Reach Bernadette at

ActiveStyle on 10/16/2017

Print Headline: Hyphen usage key to good grammar


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