Hyphens are tricky beings. They seem to be so simple, just a little straight line, but can be one of the most misunderstood pieces of punctuation in the English language. It’s amazing how a tiny line can cause so much confusion.
Today’s post talks about hyphens — when to use them, when not to use them. My hope, as always, is to help my readers become better-skilled writers, so I selfishly get higher quality manuscripts submitted.
There’s that win-win situation! 🙂
OK, here we go:
Hyphen Rule #1 – Between Two Adjectives
Hyphens Between Two Adjectives: One of the most common places you’ll need a hyphen is between two adjectives. However, what makes the hyphen tricky is this isn’t always the case. You should only use the hyphen when it’s between two adjectives immediately preceding the noun they’re describing.
Let’s look at examples, because I think that’s the easiest way for people to really understand what I mean.
He was a cold-blooded snake.
The snake was cold blooded.
Do you see the hyphen between the two adjectives “cold” and “blooded” in the first example? That’s because they immediately precede the noun they are describing — the “snake.” However, in the second example, they follow the noun, so no hyphen is needed.
Hyphen Rule #2 – No Hyphens with “LY” Adverbs
Adverbs ending in “ly”, when used with an adjective, are the exception to Rule #1. Even if these descriptors immediately precede the noun they are referring to, you don’t use a hyphen. However, non-“ly” adverbs (usually with a past or present participle) immediately preceding the noun do get a hyphen.
Let’s look at some examples again.
The rapidly deteriorating mummy was no match for the vacuum cleaner.
Using a vacuum to thwart mummies was a little-known trick her grandmother had shown her.
As you see, there’s no hyphen needed between “rapidly” and “deteriorating.” However, we do see one between “little” and “known.”
Hyphen Rule #3 – Compound Words Conundrum
I wish there was an easy rule for determining which compound words should be hyphenated. However, the English language isn’t that easy. In fact, oftentimes compound words become closed words (words with no spaces or dashes) over time.
“E-mail” is still my preferred version of electronic mail; however, I know many who prefer it written as “email.” Both are technically correct, making life as a writer or editor even more difficult.
The one sure (well, as sure as I can be, please comment below if there’s an exception I’m not remembering) compound words/hyphen rule is when that compound word is used as a verb.
Let’s look at these examples.
I had to jump-start his heart with an old car battery and length of rusted wire.
His heart had stopped and needed a jump start.
In the first example, “jump-start” is a verb, so gets the hyphen. However, in the second sentence, “jump start” is a noun so no hyphen.
Hyphen Rule #4 – Multiwords and Hyphens
Multiwords are another common place you’ll see hyphens and then sometimes you don’t. Words like “back-to-back” and “six-year-old” use hyphens. However, words like “head to toe” don’t always. It all seems rather arbitrary (and sometimes it is); however, there’s one rule that will help you know when to use hyphens in a multiword — most of the time. If the multiword is describing a noun, chances are you need those hyphens.
Let’s clarify that with some examples.
He looked her over from head to toe.
His head-to-toe inspection of her was long and a little creepy.
Notice no hyphens in that first example, where “head to toe” is describing how he looked her over. In the second example, “head-to-toe” is a description of the noun inspection, so it gets the hyphens.
I wish this was a hard and fast rule, but it is not. It’ll get you the correct hyphen answer 90% of the time. However, if in doubt — Google it. 🙂
Rule #5 – Hyphens for Clarity
Hyphens are great when there may be some misunderstanding without it. This is most often found with the prefix “re.” An example will show this better than I could ever explain it.
He had to re-cover his couch after the accident.
He had to recover his couch after the accident.
In the first sentence, the man had to get some new fabric and cover his couch again. In the second sentence, the mad had to go and get his couch back. That little hyphen certainly makes a big difference!
Rule #6 – Hyphens and Numbers
Most writers know you should always use a hyphen for all numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine that are written out. However there are a couple of other hyphens and numbers rules that are a little trickier. I’m going to keep this one simple with just going with the examples, since there are actually a couple of sub-rules here.
Compound adjectives with the number in front need hyphens, just like regular compound adjectives.
Listening to his 15-minute speech was the most uncomfortable 15 minutes of my life.
When using a fraction, always use a hyphen.
I half-wanted to kick him in the shins.
One-third of the people in the room were asleep by the end of his speech.
Rule #7 – Hyphens, Em Dashes and En Dashes, Oh My!
If you think all little straight lines are equal, you are wrong, my friend! We’ve been talking about hyphens, but there are some cousins of the hyphen — the em dash and the en dash — that you need to be aware of, to ensure you’re using all three correctly.
The hyphen is used as we’ve discussed above, to directly connect two (or more) words together. The em dash, in contrast, is used in place of commas, parentheses or colons, to set aside pieces of a sentence for more emphasis or to help break up an overly long sentence. The em dash is longer than the hyphen and most word processors will automatically insert one if you type the hyphen twice. (BTW: WordPress does NOT do this, which is why you’ll see two hyphens for my em dashes in this post.)
The en dash, in contrast, is used to literally mean the word “through.” We see this little guy when we’re listing dates or page numbers — most often in citations in a bibliography, such as “pp. 123-134.” The en dash is longer than the hyphen yet shorter than the em dash.
FUN FACT: The en dash is literally the width of a typesetter’s N and the em dash is literally the width of a typesetter’s… you guessed it – M!
The one stylistic variation you will see is whether or not there is a space before and after an em dash. APA and MLA style guides (at least the last time I checked) prefer an em dash with no spaces. Associated Press prefers there to be spaces. This issue of spacing is purely aesthetic, in my opinion, so check with your publisher about which they prefer.
Here at Cypress Canyon Publishing, we prefer to see spaces in the manuscripts that are submitted to us. I think it’s a cleaner look and if the hope is to put further emphasis on the part of the sentence being called out, giving it the space it deserves is a bonus!
Hope this helps clear up some of the hyphen confusion. Happy writing!
Kimberly is the founder and managing editor of Cypress Canyon Publishing. She does not edit her own writing, so please forgive her for any errors. She is a firm believer in the – Do as I say, not as I do Rule.