Punctuation Punctuation Glossary 2016-07-06 00:00

When Do I Need to Hyphenate?

When do I need to hyphenate?

Depending on who you subscribe to, you may hear some very different ideas concerning when and how to hyphenate. We’re here to set the record straight:

When in doubt, look it up.

Yep. This is the one form of punctuation that you’re best off looking up if you’re unsure. And another complication is that various style manuals conform to different rules. Add to that the state of fluctuation around certain words that can either be hyphenated, two separate words, or written together as one. Consider:

  • Hair stylist
  • Hair-stylist
  • Hairstylist

This is one example of commonly-used combinations of words that are in evolution. There seems to be general consensus now that we can finally drop the hyphen in “email.”

While we’re going to shy away from hard-and-fast rules about hyphenation, we’re still going to lay down some ground rules to help guide you in your writing. Here are a few.

  1. Compound Modifiers
  2. Hyphens with Ages
  3. Miscellaneous Uses

Compound Modifiers

When you use two or more words together as a single thought describing or modifying a noun and you put them before the noun, you should hyphenate them.

  • off-street parking

  • chocolate-covered raisins

  • family-owned business

  • small-town charm

When compound modifiers come after the noun, you don’t need to hyphenate.

  • parking is off street

  • raisins are chocolate covered

  • business is family owned

  • charm of a small town

Pay particular attention to compound modifiers whose meaning can change whether you hyphenate or not. There’s a Twitter account called the Grammar Monkeys who enjoy pointing out the missing hyphens that are glaringly obvious. One of their recent posts stated:

Why we need hyphens: Because a violent weather conference isn’t the same as a violent-weather conference.

Hyphens with Ages

If the ages are being used as adjectives or nouns, you should hyphenate them.

  • The five-year-old boy is ready for school.

  • The toddler is a two-year-old terror.

But if the age comes after a noun and a verb, you don’t hyphenate it.

  • The boy is five years old.

  • The terrifying toddler is two years old.

Miscellaneous Uses

You also use hyphens when:

  • Writing out numbers 21 through 99, like twenty-one and ninety-nine (and everything in between).

  • Prefixes come before a proper noun, like anti-American.

  • Avoiding confusing or awkward combinations, like shell-like or de-ice.

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