Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Mike from Onaway asked about hyphens on Tuesday’s program this week. Specifically, compound adjectives were the focus. Compounds of all kinds are two or more words joined as a unit. The general rule is, when the compound adjective comes before the noun or substantive that it modifies, use hyphens: a little-appreciated skill; a soon-to-be-married woman. But when the compound adjective comes after the noun or substantive that it modifies, drop the hyphens: a skill little appreciated; a woman soon to be married.

Since local style sheets and practices can sometimes be a bit quirky, I recommend that you consult an unabridged dictionary when possible. Rather than being carved in stone, hyphen rules today tend to focus on eliminating ambiguity. In other words, if leaving a hyphen out will confuse the reader, put one in at will. Writing a small-business owner will make it clear that you are not referring to the height of the proprietor. Using third-world war will clarify that there wasn’t another one after WWII. Spanish-language student indicates that she isn’t from Spain.

Aside from compound adjectives, hyphens have other uses. They may show up in compound nouns: mother-in-law; kilowatt-hour; president-elect. Hyphens are used when a word cannot fit completely on one line in order to signal that there is more to come. Don’t guess; consult a dictionary to learn where breaks are allowed.

Traditionally, hyphens are used with certain numbers:

  • fractions written as words (two-thirds, seven-eighths)
  • the numbers 21 through 99 when written as words (twenty-one, eighty-three)
  • numbers over 99 do not use hyphens unless they contain the numbers just mentioned ( three hundred, but three hundred twenty-seven; five thousand twenty, but five thousand twenty-one)

SIDEBAR: Hyphen, the band

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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