A Way With Words: Hyphens

A Way With Words: Hyphens
December 22, 2015 No Comments » Writing Tara R

It seems easy enough. Hyphenate when you have two or more words linked together as a single modifier, and the linked words precede the noun they modify, and if the combination of words has a separate meaning without using a hyphen.

Remember, hyphens are used specifically to avoid confusion. The problem is that when to use a hyphen is still confusing.

Hyphenate

Grades:
Bobby is a third-grader this school year

Age:
I have an eight-year-old Labrador named Hershey

Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine:
thirty-five
two hundred and thirty-five dollars

Fractions:
one-half
two-fifths
six and three-fourths pounds

Measurements:
nine-inch
seven-foot

Prefixes: ex, self, all (in most instances)
ex-wife
self-service
all-purpose

When omitting the hyphen creates a new word, with a different definition:
re-sign/resign
re-creation/recreation

When creating new, compound words:
jaw-dropping
horn-rimmed glasses
frame-by-frame

When combining last names:
After Betty Jones and John Warren get married, they will change their last name to Mr. and Mrs. Jones-Warren.

When the prefix comes before a proper noun
mid-November
after-Christmas sale

When omitting a hyphen in a compound modifier is confusing:
A small scale manufacturing plant is coming to town. – the plant manufactures little weighing devices
A small-scale manufacturing plant is coming to town. – the plant manufactures items of limited quantity

With a list of compound words, hyphenate each prefix:
We needed to decide on four-, six- or eight-inch floor tiles.
The school chorus auditions are open to first-, second- and third-grade students.

Do not hyphenate

When the modifier is after the noun in a sentence:
Bobby is small for being in third grade.
My pet, a Labrador named Hershey, is eight years old.

When part of an accepted word:
crossword
evergreen

When the preceding word is not used as a prefix:
cross index
ever since

When the meaning is clear without hyphens:
sixth century art
high school graduation,

Some of these rules can be broken, but it’s difficult to know when that is acceptable. If you’re still confused, best practice is to use a dictionary.

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Tara R Tara Roberts (pronounced Tar-ah and with a southern drawl) lives and plays on the Florida Gulf Coast. A former print news and online media reporter, she now spends her days roaming the woods and beaches of the Panhandle talking to herself, penning eclectic fiction, and taking photographs. She can be found most days at “Thin spiral notebook” trying to quiet the voices in her head.

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