Hyphens: a quick and dirty guide, by the Hyphenator

It’s been a while—over a year—since I’ve “treated” you guys to a blog post about punctuation. I’ve blogged about dashes (em rules and en rules) before, and also semicolons. Today I want to talk about the dash’s smaller cousin, the hyphen. At work they call me the Hyphenator, which isn’t as lame as it sounds. Ok, it’s probably exactly as lame, but I really love a correctly used hyphen, almost as much as a correctly used semicolon.

I suppose I should just be grateful they don’t call me the Colonator.

Now, I could save you time by pointing out that at least 50% of the time, when I have a question about hyphenation, my first port of call is my trusty old (actually new) dictionary. Words are always changing, and even between dictionary editions a word won’t necessarily be spelled the same way. Words that work as a pair often evolve from being two words to two words with a hyphen to one word. For example, a few years ago a word like “counterterrorism” was spelled “counter-terrorism”, but the hyphen has been worn away with the word’s frequent use over the last decade.

The other 50% of the time, when the thing you’re looking at hyphenating isn’t one word but two or several working as a compound modifier, whether you need a hyphen is a judgement call. The more-common examples will be in the dictionary, but more-unusual ones won’t.

Compound modifiers

A modifier is typically an adjective or adverb, and a compound modifier is (unsurprisingly) a modifier made up of two or more words. Most of the time when I see them they are adjectives; I can’t think of any compound adverb examples off the top of my head, but I won’t rule the possibility out because the English language is a tricksy thing.

Here are some examples:

  • My long-term goals include becoming a bestseller.
  • She gazed at the blue-green sea.
  • I have a five-year-old son.
  • I’ve got that I-can’t-think-of-any-more-examples feeling.

In all these instances, the bolded words are a compound adjective modifying a noun. Not every word I’ve bolded is an adjective itself, but working together, they form one. Importantly, the compound adjectives are all sitting before the noun. In this instance, I almost always hyphenate the modifiers.

If, however, the sentences were written with the adjectives after the noun, you don’t hyphenate them: “My goals for the long term include becoming a bestseller.” (Yeah, good luck with that.)

Exceptions to hyphenating compound modifiers

There are two reasons I wouldn’t hyphenate a compound modifier even when it’s before a noun. One is when the meaning is clear without the hyphen, and the other is when it changes the meaning of the sentence to add a hyphen.

An example I frequently see is a construction where the modifier to the noun is actually an adverb and a verb, such as “the quickly running boy”. In that instance I wouldn’t hyphenate, simply because there’s no possibility of the reader misunderstanding. “Quickly” can only be modifying “running”, not “boy”.

Here’s another example I see at work a lot:

  • I will read the most popular books.
  • I will read the most-popular books.

The first says that I will read more popular books than anyone else, while the second says I will read only the books that are bestsellers. In that case, whether you hyphenate or not depends on what you’re trying to convey. Sometimes it’s better to reword to avoid ambiguity; for example, some people might misread the first sentence as having the second meaning, even without the hyphen, because they don’t know what a pedant I am for hyphens. If I reworded to say “I will read more popular books than anyone else”, there’s no chance they’ll misunderstand.

Hyphenating numbers and ages

Ages: In my first examples, I included one about my son being five. That sentence would work the same way whether I wrote it with or without the word “son”, because ages are written with hyphens. (The exception is if there is a noun and the age sits after it in the sentence.)

  • I have a five-year-old son.
  • I have a five-year-old.
  • My son is five years old.

Numbers: Numbers written in full are always hyphenated where they are more than one word (so from twenty-one onwards).

As an aside, when you switch from writing in full to using digits depends on the style you’re using—at work we write words for whole numbers from one to nine and then use digits from 10 onwards. Most other places it’s whole numbers from one to ninety-nine. There is one exception to using digits beyond a certain number, though. If the number starts a sentence, it should be written in full—so if you have the number 28563 at the start of a sentence, you might want to reword to put something in front of it, or it’s gonna get ugly.

There is more I could write about hyphens, but this post is already on the long side and I’m sure that you’ve all fallen asleep anyway. If you haven’t, high five!

High five

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