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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