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How to Use a Hyphen

Learn how to properly use hyphens with compound adjectives, and more.

By
Mignon Fogarty
Episode #347

Suspended Hyphens

You can also suspend hyphens. No, it doesn’t mean they got in trouble at grammar school, it means that to save space, you can suspend hyphens when you’re listing several words describing the same noun. How do you suspend them? Let’s say Santa found a fire-proof, dog-proof, and soot-proof vest online. You don’t need to write the full compound adjective each time, since each one is modifying the same noun, “vest.” Instead of writing “proof” each time, you’ll list them, each with only the first part of the compound, followed by a hyphen and then a comma. So if you were suspending hyphens when listing what type of vest Santa was planning on buying, you’d write that he purchased "the fire-, dog-, and soot-proof vest online."

If the rules aren’t confusing enough already, there are a few things that you should avoid or not do when using hyphens.

Stacked Modifiers

Although it’s OK to use hyphens with two or three adjectives to describe a noun, you shouldn’t overdo it. Using too many modifiers before a noun can complicate your sentence. Let’s look at a good example, followed by a not-so-good one:

  • The forty-year-old man looked like Santa Claus. (Good)

  • The uses-too-many-silly-hyphens-for-added-effect woman was Mrs. Claus! (Excessive)

Although the above example about Mrs. Claus would be OK on the rare occasion, as a general rule, when you’re being serious, you may want to consider three hyphenated modifiers before a noun as the limit.

Hyphens and Adverbs

Although it’s OK to use hyphens with adjectives, hyphens and adverbs don’t get along as well. You shouldn’t use hyphens with adverbs such as “happily” and “individually.” For example, you don’t put hyphens in phrases such as “happily married man” and “individually wrapped cheese.”

Summary

The quick and dirty tip for using hyphens is to check a dictionary or style guide.  If you don't have one handy, follow the rule that you hyphenate compound modifiers when they come before a noun, and don't hyphenate them when they come after a noun.

Web Bonus

A few years ago, the Associated Press removed the hyphen from “e-mail” but left the hyphen in “e-commerce” and “e-business.” You can see why hyphen rules are confusing! Over time, words can become open compounds, closed compounds, or even hyphenated compounds. “Coffeehouse” is a great example. I’ve seen it spelled three different ways: coffeehouse, coffee house, and coffee-house.

Thanks to Ashley Dodge for editorial assistance with this article.

*The original article listed "one-hundred" as an example, which is incorrect. "One hundred" does not take a hyphen.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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