Is the glass half full or half-empty?

Mignon Fogarty,
February 1, 2008
Episode #093


Today's topic is hyphens.

On Monday afternoon Pat was watching the cable channel CNBC and called me over to the TV because the hosts were talking about hyphens. Yup, in the middle of a segment on the economy, they started talking about hyphens because the ticker read something like Is the glass half full or half empty? The original ticker had half full and half empty without hyphens, and then the next minute the words showed up with hyphens.

You could see evidence of a hyphen debate taking place right on the screen. Clearly one person who had control of the ticker favored hyphens and another person who also had control of the ticker did not.

The hosts noticed and started talking about it themselves. Fun stuff!

How to Use Hyphens

It turns out the first person was on the right track. In the sentence Is the glass half full? you don't need a hyphen between half and full. However, if we put the words half full before the word glass so that they are acting as a compound modifier, then it makes sense to use a hyphen. The sentence would read He was holding a half-full glass.

Now, the detail-oriented people among you will notice that I didn't say anyone was right or wrong, and I didn't use strong words such as should hyphenate or must hyphenate. I chose my words carefully because the rules about hyphens can hardly be called rules; there are so many exceptions it's making me crazy.