Sep 11, 2016

A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Hyphens

In our hyper-connected world, it’s easier than ever to stay in contact with other people. But how do we make sure our words are connecting the way they ought to? Simple answer: the hyphen.

Unfortunately, using the little bugger isn’t always that simple. This quick guide to hyphens will help you connect your words in a pinch!

Use ’em when:
  • The meaning could otherwise be misinterpreted (Example: this place has little-town charm versus this place has little town charm — one is good, the other has negative connotations).
  • Not hyphenating the prefix creates a new word (Example: She re-covered her switchblade versus recovered her switchblade — one is menacing, the other is a relief).
  • A prefix or suffix will result in three of the same consonants or two of the same vowels in a row (Example: parklike is okay, but shelllike should be shell-like; anti-inflammatory requires a hyphen, but coeducation doesn’t).
  • You’re compounding modifiers before the noun (Example: a bluish-green dress; a know-it-all attitude — state-of-the-art is an exception here and is hyphenated both before and after the noun).
  • A compound follows a “to be” verb (Example: The man is quick-witted; the babies are super-powered).
  • You’re writing a noun, adjective or verb that indicates occupation or status (Example: co-author, co-chairman, co-defendant, co-host, co-owner, co-partner, co-pilot, co-signer, co-sponsor, co-star, co-worker, and more).
  • When two or more hyphenated adjectives share a common element (Example: oak- and pine-lined trails is simpler than oak-lined and pine-lined trails. It also works when the first element is the same but the second changes: family-owned and -operated instead of family-owned and family-operated).
  • When numerals are used as compound modifiers (Example: I’m a 34-year-old manchild and I have the hairline of a 5-year-old child; Handy tip: don’t hyphenate numbers and units when the unit of measurement is plural — my cat is 16 years old).
  • When you’re spelling out a two-digit number and the first word ends in a “y” (Example: twenty-five).
  • When adding a prefix to a capitalized word (Example: non-Nike sportswear).
But don’t use ’em when:
  • The words are cooperate or coordinate (or any of their other word forms).
  • You’re using the phrase as a noun (Example: two and a half hours is plenty of time). If you are using a phrase like that as a modifier, however, you’ll need hyphens to hold it all together (Example: a two-and-a-half-hour trip).
  • The adverb is “very” or ends in “-ly” (Example: the very elegant watch; the finely tuned watch).

Most style guides are of the “less is better” camp when it comes to hyphen use, but the most important thing is getting your point across. If it’s at all unclear, and a hyphen might help, connect away.

Here at Conveyor, we are huge fans of the AP Stylebook. If you have time, dive in. You’ll find more handy style rules to keep your writing clean, clear and connected. And if you enjoyed reading about hyphens here, check out my article on the differences between em and en dashes.


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