How To or How-To: A Look at the Mixed-Up World of Hyphen Rules

Hyphenation is a wonderful tool, capable of linking words and ideas in ways that make you a more efficient writer. Their rules can be confusing, though.

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To hyphenate, or not to hyphenate – that is the question.

Well, it’s one of them, anyway. There’s a world of opinions on the use of the little hyphen and when or where you should (and shouldn’t) use it. As a veteran of the journalism world, I was proverbially “raised” on the Associated Press Stylebook (and proudly keep a copy on my desk, where I still look up “compliment, complement” at least once a week).

The AP Stylebook offers a full series of rules on a whole slew of words and punctuation uses, including a range of specific preferences for writing with the hyphen. It’s important to note that these guidelines have some flexibility, depending on your own company-specific usages or your stylebook of choice. But without further ado, let’s take a look at when, where, and how adding a hyphen is the right choice in your writing.

Verbs Vs. Nouns

One of the more commonplace hyphenation questions revolves around words and phrases that double as both nouns (or adjectives) and verbs. Typically speaking, if you’re using the term in a verb sense, the word should be two parts standing alone. For nouns or adjectives, use the hyphen. A good way to remember? Don’t “mix up” (verb) the “mix-up” (noun) of hyphens with verbs and nouns.

  • Verb example: “I think you have me mixed up with someone else.”
  • Noun (or adjective) example: “There was some sort of mix-up in the medical records.”

Compound Modifiers

Another familiar place you find the hyphen is in words serving as a compound modifier before a noun. For example, the “first-time user” of a hyphen should hyphenate “first time” before a noun. This is done because the two words are combining – or compounding – to create a larger modifying phrase. A “top-notch sentence” will use “hyphen-tied words” to modify the nouns.

Double Compounds

There are a handful of instances where you might need to tie together several words as part of a longer compound thought. For example, you could take your company’s “editor-in-chief” or your “son-in-law” to lunch at the “all-you-can-eat buffet” downtown. But don’t fill up – we’ve got plenty more hyphen usages to cover.

Hyphens by the Numbers

Hyphens are also used around numbers quite frequently (and no, not as a minus sign). Depending on the specific context, the AP rules get a bit crazy for numerals – but while they take up a whole four pages of the stylebook, they’re really not too complicated. One of the simplest rules of thumb is to use hyphens in the same way as compound modifiers. For instance, you might write, “Your 3-year-old son has the smallest room in your four-bedroom house.”

You should also hyphenate fractional numbers – somewhat like a compound modifier. For example, “One-third of the three numbers in this fifth sentence of the paragraph needs a hyphen.” On the topic of numbers, AP Style also calls for phone numbers to be written with all hyphens, so give Jenny a ring at 555-867-5309.

Prefixes

Using a prefix is another time where hyphens will occasionally make an appearance. This rule can be a bit confusing, however, because many of the most common prefixes in everyday usage don’t require a hyphen, and instead work as just a single word. The hyphen should be used, though, in two particular instances: repeating letters and different word usages. So, if you were in a “pre-evaluation” or a “re-evaluation” phase in your project, you’d want to use a hyphen. Similarly, if you plan to take a day off tomorrow to “recover” after you “re-cover” your pool today, you’d only use hyphens on the second use to make the word more clear as a repetitive verb action.

Adverbially Speaking

Generally speaking, adverbs can broadly be remembered as words that end in -ly, and are often used to modify adjectives before a noun. When they do, they shouldn’t be hyphenated – despite a fairly common convention of doing so. Unlike a compound modifier, where the “commonly used hyphen” is the rule of the road, adverbs should be left alone to correctly follow this “frequently misunderstood guideline.”

Participles

Speaking of words best known by their endings, participles (generally verb constructions that end in -ing) typically follow the same rules as compound modifiers. That means if you wanted to write about daredevil Nik Wallenda’s journey across Niagara Falls in 2012, you could say his “tightrope-walking performance” was a “record-setting stunt” – not to mention a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, to harken back to those rules for multiple modifiers!

Speaking of Suspenseful…

Wallenda’s walk was full of suspense, but wasn’t nearly as exciting as suspensive hyphenation. OK, so maybe that’s a bit of a reach, but suspensive hyphenation is too – that is to say it’s used to connect multiple items in a list. For instance, I should probably receive a “10- to 20-day suspension” from writing blogs for using so many cheesy transitions. You could also say I’ve delivered “first-, second- and third-place performances” in the Pun-Writing Olympics.

After The Fact

Perhaps the most common thread throughout these rules is they are all true when used to modify words before a noun. If you’re adding the description following the noun, nix the hyphen.

This rule is also true for capitalization. If you have a “hard-working boss,” you could alternatively say that “your boss is hard working.” Similarly, if you report to “company Vice President John Doe,” you are an employee of “John Doe, vice president of the company.”

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot of ground covered here, but you can remove a lot of confusion by remembering two major rules: hyphenate before a phrase, and use a dictionary if there’s any doubt. 

The broadest definition of a hyphen is a way to join words to create a single unified idea or to avoid confusion in writing, and while there are even more nuances – doubled and tripled letters, proper nouns and other one-off exceptions – this covers the majority of the most commonly seen cases. Hopefully, the rules covered here will help you be an even-better communicator in your day-to-day writing.

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About The Author:Ryan Yaeger
Ryan is an account coordinator and lead content editor at Mainstreethost. Beyond working with clients and writing blogs and content on a range of topics from alcoholic drinks to Zaire tourism, he’s a rabid fan of the Bills, Sabres and Blackhawks, passionate about all things Apple, and spends his spare time playing board games and taking orders from his cat, Dude.