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.

Marcia Riefer Johnston, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #368


Should you always hyphenate a compound adjective (that is, two or more words working as one adjective) when those words come right before a noun? Some say yes. Commonly, though, when a whole phrase, noun and all, becomes widely recognized, the hyphen disappears. For example, even in the language-usage-curmudgeon-filled-technical-writing world, the hyphen has all but dropped out of certain common terms, like content management system or (more controversially in the curmudgeonliest circles) quick reference card. Those comfortable with these omissions argue that, in these cases, the hyphen no longer has a job to do.

Why Not Leave It In?

It does no harm, though, to keep the hyphen, even in frequently used phrases. Sometimes a style guide (or a boss) wants it left out in certain contexts, in which case the wise writer complies. Otherwise, if the hyphen’s knack for uniting could prevent even a few readers from stumbling, why not send the little guy in? As Edward Johnson says, “Even the most familiar compounds can be ambiguous, and the writer, who knows the intended meaning, often will not notice the ambiguity; only the reader will.” (1) The Chicago Manual of Style says, “With the exception of proper nouns (such as United States) and compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective … it is never incorrect to hyphenate adjectival compounds before a noun.” (2) Usage authority Bryan Garner states the risk of going hyphenless this way: “almost all sentences with unhyphenated phrasal adjectives will be misread by someone.” (3)

To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate After a Noun: That Is the Wrong Question

So far, we’ve been talking only about phrasal adjectives that precede the noun they modify. What happens when they follow the noun? Should we hyphenate there, too?

That is the wrong question. Consider this sentence:

  • This job is long-term.
  • This job is long term.

Do you need the hyphen here? Most authorities say no. Don’t hyphenate a compound modifier when it follows the modified noun. Before the noun, yes (This is a long-term job), but after, no (This job is long term).