Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone



Most people ignore hyphens. Those who don’t ignore them often misuse them.

“Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation or that employs it where it is not wanted,” wrote the language scholar Wilson Follett.

The writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein was more sympathetic: “The world of the hyphen is anarchic. Such rules as there are tend to break down under the pressure of exceptions.”

No wonder the hyphen has been called “the pest of the punctuation family.”

Still, if we did not need hyphens, they’d be long gone. One of their chief functions is to serve as connectors in compound adjectives, which consist of two or more words. We see hyphens used this way all the time: an author who is well known is a well-known author; an athlete who is out of shape is an out-of-shape athlete.

To illustrate the indispensability of the humble hyphen in compound adjectives, we offer these examples from print and online media:

Hard to find plants at garden center  The article that follows this headline has nothing but praise for a startup whose specialty is exotic vegetation, but two hyphens are needed in the opening phrase: hard-to-find plants. Otherwise, the headline is deceptively negative: who wants to go to a nursery where it’s hard to find any plants?

The drop in fee is $15  It appears there was a fifteen-dollar drop in the price of admission to this event. On the contrary, the price of a ticket at the door—that is, the drop-in fee—stayed firm at fifteen dollars. The writer subverted the sentence’s meaning by leaving out the hyphen.

He drank a single malt scotch  If you don’t know scotch whisky from Scotch Tape you might suppose that the man limited himself to one drink of “malt scotch.” But no, he was drinking a single-malt scotch, and he consumed quite a few that evening.

No parking rules enacted  As it stands, this headline says that no legislation was passed regarding public parking. But the article contradicts the headline: the city council issued an extensive list of no-parking regulations, effective immediately.

A bomb survivor tells his story  What a profound difference this missing hyphen makes. Anyone who survives a bomb has a harrowing story to tell, but this piece was about a man who survived the atomic bomb, also known as the A-bomb, that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. The anguish of surviving a bomb blast cannot be minimized, but even that pales in comparison with enduring the hellscape wrought by the most devastating weapon ever unleashed upon humankind.

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016, at 2:33 pm

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29 Comments on Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone

29 responses to “Hyphens: We Miss Them When They’re Gone”

  1. Vas NoName says:

    Hi!

    Thanks for useful site! I have a question: are quizzes made according to American English? I’m especially interested in punctuation quizzes

  2. Mike Phares says:

    Jane:
    Hyphens and their correct usage is one of my pet peeves, too. But I’m missing your point of using the hyphen in “A bomb survivor tells his story.”

    Are you saying it should be “bomb-survivor?” If so, I don’t see how the hyphen makes anything clearer in this case. Could you give more explanation?

    Thanks,
    Mike Phares

  3. Chad Campbell says:

    I work with corporate executives and wealthy families. I often see my market described as “high net worth individuals.” I think it should be “high-net-worth individuals.” I need a ruling! Many thanks!

    • You are correct. High-net-worth is a compound adjective used to describe the noun individuals.

      • Nataliya Sergeevna says:

        I use the same rationale that you do, in explaining my use of the hyphen in compound adjectives. Just today (16 Sept. 2016), I did some work in translating written material, between two languages. (The ‘target language’ was English.) The article that I translated had to do with some “aperitif” items one would find at a specific, fine-eating establishment, in an upscale district of Barcelona (Spain).

        There was a long phrase which I will abbreviate to “onion-confit pizzetes”. (And, although I am now a retired senior citizen nearing 70 years of age, I will freely admit that I never really knew just exactly what a “confit” (pronounced “con-FEE”) was. But, in creating a compound adjective from an “onion confit”, I inserted the hyphen and told the other (online) translators that this newly-formed adjective now asks the same question that all other adjectives ask:

        “What kind of … pizzete*?”

        ANSWER: “An onion-confit pizzete*.”

        _____________________________________________
        * a small pizza (in Spain Spanish)

  4. Yvonne says:

    Posted as a general remark:

    Extremely addictively are the substantial grammar digressions, you offer with the weekly – most welcome – GrammarBook newsletter. Thank you so much!

    Please let a non-English native be excused for possibly non-errorless commenting.

  5. Nick G. says:

    Hello BlueBook of Grammar!

    I have a question on hyphens…thank you

    The technology is state of the art.
    The new software is cutting edge.
    The investigation was in depth.
    The test was multiple choice.
    The exam is fill in the blank.
    His performance was spot on.
    It was on point.

    Is okay to leave out hyphens like I did in the phrases following the be verbs? If not which ones would you include the hyphens in after the be-verbs?

    • Some phrases in your list require hyphens: state-of-the-art and spot-on are always hyphenated. Some editors would always hyphenate fill-in-the-blanks also. We recommend checking a dictionary with these sorts of phrases.

  6. Scott L. says:

    Thanks for this one. It was great and helpful.

    I still have a question though. So should hyphens be used only when the words can be ambiguous like the examples you gave? Or should they be used whenever there are compound adjectives?

    For example in the sentence, “there will be a lot of big-name celebrities and movie stars attending the event.”
    “Big name celebrities” should not cause any confusion, right? Should the hyphen be used?

    I also find using commas can be difficult sometimes, especially different style manuals have different requirements.
    Would be great if you can do a piece on using commas for double adjectives, for example, “the beautiful, exquisite music.”

    • We do recommend using hyphens when words form compound adjectives, such as big-name celebrities. Writers have to be careful about deciding what is or isn’t ambiguous. Using a hyphen in these situations takes little effort, and can prevent big trouble that the writer never saw coming. We list many rules and guidelines regarding hyphens on our GrammarBook.com website to help you determine when to use them between words or with prefixes and suffixes.

      Our Rule 2 of Commas covers your question regarding two adjectives. We also wrote about this in our article Commas, Part 3, which you can find under our Grammar Blog tab on our website. We do plan some time in the future to write another article addressing comma use with double adjectives.

      Thank you for being a subscriber to our GrammarBook.com weekly e-newsletter, and thank you for the kind words.

  7. Nathan G. says:

    I have a structure that supports itself and another one that doesn’t. The first is called a “self-supporting structure”. Is the second a “non-self-supporting structure” or is it a “nonself-supporting structure”?

  8. Jeff M. says:

    I had a quick question about hyphen usage in your following example:

    Rule 3. An often overlooked rule for hyphens: The adverb very and adverbs ending in ly are not hyphenated.

    Incorrect: the very-elegant watch
    Incorrect: the finely-tuned watch

    This rule applies only to adverbs. The following two examples are correct because the ly words are not adverbs:

    Correct: the friendly-looking dog
    Correct: a family-owned cafe

    In your explanation of Rule 3, shouldn’t it be “An often-overlooked rule” and not “An often overlooked rule”? Or am I missing another rule about hyphens?

    • Since often is always an adverb (like very), it seldom needs hyphenation with an adjoining adjective. On certain occasions it does require hyphenation to avoid ambiguity, but not in the case of an often overlooked rule.

  9. Lisa says:

    I have a question about using the possessive for three-year-old. One three-year-old and one gift. Would your write it three-year-old’s gift? or three years old’s gift?

  10. S. G. says:

    I know that technically we’d use suspended hyphenation in “a family-owned and -operated business,” but this looks hideous.

    Could we style it without hyphens, like this?

    a family owned and operated business

    But we’d write “a family-owned business,” with the hyphen.

    Correct to both above? I think this is a style choice.

    • In the world of grammar and punctuation, the truth is there are far more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. Your method with suspended hyphens aligns with guidance for formal, written grammar. A case could also be made for a family-owned-and-operated business.

      Your unhyphenated version may be considered less formal or proper. However, what would we lose in clarity by omitting the hyphens? Probably not much. Thus, the issue in this particular case is not necessarily negating ambiguity, but more a case of whether a formal or informal application of English grammar is preferred.

  11. Jon says:

    Hey GrammarBook, I have an example that I can’t find in your otherwise excellent list of hyphen examples. I’m hoping you can help. https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/hyphens.asp

    I’m writing a book. I have a question on whether to add a hyphen in the cases where you have two numbers separated by or before the noun. Here are a couple excerpts:

    Ex: “It’s a five or six sentence story, one that you’ve practiced out loud beforehand.”
    Ex: “This is the second example provided in this chapter of what a five or six sentence story looks like. ”
    Ex: “Remember all you have to tell is one six sentence story that you’ve practiced beforehand.”

    In the chapter we refer to both “five or six sentence stories” as well as “a six sentence story”. Do either or those require hyphens, and if so, where would you put them?

    When I add hyphens throughout, “five-or-six-sentence story”, it seems too bulky.

    My gut says, “five or six-sentence story” as well as “a six-sentence story”. What do you think?

    • Our post Hyphenating Between Words has more informaiton on this topic. The Chicago Manual of Style’s rule 7.84 says, “When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.
      Therefore, write the following:
      “It’s a five- or six-sentence story, one that you’ve practiced out loud beforehand.”
      “This is the second example provided in this chapter of what a five- or six-sentence story looks like. ”
      “Remember all you have to tell is one six-sentence story that you’ve practiced beforehand.”

  12. Frank Repartee says:

    What do you make of the following slogan?

    Gainesville.
    Citizen centered
    People empowered

    Does the period negate the need for hyphenating these compound adjectives? Would it be any better with a colon?

    Gainesville:
    Citizen centered
    People empowered

    How about a colon and a comma and moving the period?

    Gainesville:
    Citizen-centered,
    People-empowered.

    How about a colon and a comma and no period?

    Gainesville:
    Citizen-centered,
    People-empowered

    • Since there is no verb, the slogan is not a complete sentence; therefore, standard punctuation rules do not apply. With slogans and marketing in general, it’s a matter of writer’s preference.

  13. Carol says:

    This award recognizes excellence in Indigenous-owned-and-operated businesses.
    Is that a properly punctuated sentence?
    (Thank you!)

    • If Indigenous is being used in a way analogous to, say, women, minority, or other such nouns used as adjectives, then your hyphens are correct. However, if used as an adverb in a way analogous to locally, for example, then you would write Indigenously owned and operated businesses.

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