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How to Use Hyphens

Why hyphens (or lack of them) mean your true blue friend is a Smurf and you should not fear free dentistry. We have lots of examples that will help you finally understand hyphen rules.

By
Marcia Riefer Johnston, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 23, 2013
Episode #368

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How to Use Hyphens

Hyphens are a regular source of confusion among Grammar Girl listeners. Since I thought the hyphen section of Marcia Riefer Johnston’s new book, Word Up!, was particularly helpful, this week, we have a show about hyphens based on an excerpt of her book.

Hyphens Unite!

Marcia’s friend Mark notes that hyphens seem to be disappearing. “Not sure why,” he says. “Hyphens make reading easier.” He’s talking about those times when two or more adjectives join forces, working together as a compound adjective in front of a noun. (Compound adjectives go by various names. You might know them as adjectival compounds, phrasal adjectives, compound modifiers, or unit modifiers.)

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An amusing example comes from a dentist’s bold sign: In large letters, it gives this command: Fear Free Dentistry. Maybe these dentists intend to scare people away from free dentistry. Probably, though, they intend to advertise fear-free dentistry. The hyphen changes it to dentistry that is free of fear. (How many customers do you think their omission scares away? Who would want someone that sloppy coming at them with a drill?)

Does the lowly hyphen—that dinky half-dash, that barely-there conjoiner of words—deserve a whole essay? Is any punctuation mark less emblematic of power? If you were choosing teammates, you’d pick the hyphen last. A hyphen doesn’t even merit sand in the face; bullies simply ignore it, inflicting the ultimate humiliation: leaving it out.

But when you see the hyphen for what it is, when you take the time to appreciate its unique qualities, you’ll find it a powerful ally indeed.

Example:

true blue friend

Do you need a hyphen here? Try this test: say each adjective (true and blue) with the noun separately. True friend. That makes sense. Blue friend. That makes sense only if you’re talking about a Smurf. So you don’t have a true blue friend. True and blue work together. Call on the hyphen’s unifying force, and you’ve got a true-blue friend.

Try the test on clean energy consultant. Pair each adjective with consultant separately. Energy consultant. That almost makes sense. Clean consultant. That makes sense only if the consultant just took a shower. Clean and energy work together: clean-energy consultant.

Other hyphenless headscratchers:

  • sick ward nurse (a ward nurse with the flu)
  • light green suitcase (a green suitcase that weighs little)
  • ride on mower (a ride on a mower)
  • little used cigar (eww!)

Usually, people can decipher a phrase like this from its context—after they stop, go back, and reread the words. But why make them reread? Why slow them down when a hyphen could speed them along? For example, let’s say you run a prestigious hospital, and you’re about to print a full-page ad on the back cover of the New York Times Magazine with this headline (complete with these unfortunate line breaks):

A Father
Son Bond So Close,
They’re Joined At
The Liver.

You’d want to stop the press and unite father and son (father-son bond…) rather than force people—millions of people in this case—to stop and reread a headline that so inappropriately separates this dad from this boy. (1)

Next: Exceptions

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