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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, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #368

Exceptions

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).

Most authorities also point out exceptions. They say that some compounds need a hyphen even when they follow the noun. Which compounds, though … razor-sharp? risk-averse? time-sensitive? all-encompassing? cost-effective? blue-green? Authorities disagree. Some defer to dictionaries, but you can’t necessarily go by a dictionary. As The Chicago Manual of Style says, “When such compounds follow the noun they modify, hyphenation is usually unnecessary, even for adjectival compounds that are hyphenated in Webster’s (such as well-read or ill-humored).” (4)

Crazy-making! As John Benbow, once editor of the Oxford University Press stylebook, is widely quoted as warning, “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.” (5)

So much for seeking the right answer.

Happily, we’re seeking not a right answer but a right question. Most authorities don’t tell you that if you wonder, Do I need a hyphen here? after the modified noun, you ask the wrong question. They don’t tell you what you most need to know: that a post-noun modifier almost always follows a be-verb (is, are, was) or some other linking verb (seem, appear, become, remain, grow, get). And they don’t tell you that linking verbs almost always signal an opportunity to strengthen a sentence.

So what question should you ask yourself when faced, heaven forbid, with sentences like these?

  • This job is long term.
  • That child is razor-sharp.
  • The suit is blue-green (or blue green).

Ask yourself, What do I have to say about that long-term job, that razor-sharp child, that blue-green suit? Then, eliminate the linking verb, and swap in some substance, some muscle:

  • This long-term job pays more than anyone in Joan’s family has ever made.
  • Those razor-sharp kids speak twelve languages.
  • Donovan thought that the blue-green suit made the professor look glamorous.

In all those examples, the compound adjective is hyphenated because it comes before the noun. And now, you have yourself sentences worth reading.
 

Footnotes

1 This hyphenless headline, which splashed across the back cover of the New York Times Magazine on November 27, 2011, also suffers from a noun-pronoun mismatch. Grammatically, the they refers to the would-be subject, bond, as if to say, “The bond are joined at the liver.” Ouch again. Not the best way for a hospital to advertise its attention to detail.

References

1. Johnson, Edward D. The Handbook of Good English: Revised and Updated (New York: Facts on File, 1991), p. 205.
2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 373.
3. Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage, p. 627.
4. The Chicago Manual of Style, p. 373-374.
5. Benbow, John. Manuscript & Proof: The Preparation of Manuscript for the Printer and the Handling of the Proofs, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), 92.

Find out more about Marcia Riefer Johnston's book Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) at her website, HowToWriteEverything.com.

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