Hyphens for Dummies (Easy Tips to Avoid Confusion)

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

The use of hyphens tends to bring up a lot of controversy from time to time, and it is possibly one of the most overused (or underused) punctuation marks. Here’s a quickie refresher on hyphen use.

1. Hyphenated Compounds vs. Open and Closed Compounds
According to common language standards, some compounds generally require hyphens: closed (one word) or open (two words).

Hyphenated                              Closed                         Open
hands-on                                  handheld                       hand in glove
weather-beaten                      weatherproof               weather vane
man-hour                                manhunt                       man power

2. Hyphenating to Avoid Ambiguity
Some words may be hyphenated to allow easier readability or to avoid confusion.

re-form (not to be confused with reform)
re-creation (not to be confused with recreation)
fine-tooth comb (since we don’t comb our teeth)

3. Compound Modifiers Before a Noun
Multiple adjectives preceding a noun (also called an adjectival phrase) usually need a hyphen to add clarity. However, if the same phrase follows the noun, the hyphen is not necessary.

a well-liked teacher                   her floor-length gown
The teacher is well liked.           Her gown is floor length.

Exception: Words ending in –ly are not hyphenated before a noun.

greatly admired philanthropist
falsely accused witness

4. Numbers and Fractions
Use hyphens when spelling compound numbers between 21 and 99, and fractions.

one-fourth (but, a half hour)
sixty-seven
five hundred forty-two

5. Age, Color, and Direction
As with adjectival phrases (see number 3), these terms act as a single unit and will almost always need hyphenation.

a nine-year-old child (but, nine years old)
reddish-brown clay (but, the clay is reddish brown)
east-west highway (also, the highway runs east-west)

You may have noticed that I’ve used phrases like “may require” and “usually need.” This is not at all by accident or a means to avoid committing to any particular grammar rule. Truly, I’ve used this wording because, as we know, for every rule in the English language, there are always exceptions. So, when in doubt about hyphens (or anything else), consult your dictionary.

If you liked this, you might also like…

Everything You Need to Know About Apostrophes (and 2 more things)

Semicolons: How You Can Use Them & Look Smarter

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