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:
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:
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, M-W.com, 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