A Word, Please: 6 tips to hyphenate like a professional editor

Have you noticed that, lately, you’re less inclined to stick a hyphen between words? That is, you’re looking at a term like “a time honored tradition,” realizing you could put a hyphen in “time-honored,” then thinking, “Nah. It’s clear enough as it is.”

You’re not alone. Hyphens, it seems, are becoming a little passe. Even the Associated Press Stylebook is going lighter on the hyphens these days. And if you’re wondering how that’s possible, it’s because hyphenation has always been as much an art as a science.

“Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense,” is how a tweet from the AP Stylebook puts it.

That’s great news for people who don’t want to fuss over hyphens. But it can be bad news for folks who do — writers who want their punctuation to look as professional as possible.

So, with those eager-to-please hyphenaters in mind, here are six tips to let you hyphenate like a professional editor.

For compound modifiers, ask if a hyphen helps. Sometimes, words come pre-made with hyphens. No decision-making required on your part because these terms, which include “decision-making,” are hyphenated right in the dictionary.

Often, these hyphenated terms are nouns. That distinguishes them from the terms you assemble yourself and therefore must decide whether to hyphenate. Often, these are compound adjectives: a hyphen-obsessed writer. You won’t find that in the dictionary.

But does “hyphen-obsessed” need its hyphen?

Not long ago, I suspect most editors would have said “yes.” Today, as publications go lighter on the hyphens, I’m not so sure.

The rule when you’re making your own compound: Only hyphenate it if you think the hyphen helps comprehension, for example when you’re concerned a woman-eating lobster could be mistaken for a woman eating lobster.

For compounds of three or more words, go light. That compound modifier rule we just cited also applies when your modifier contains more than two words: a hyphen-and-comma-obsessed writer. But in my anecdotal experience, editors these days seem hesitant to use that many hyphens. (Personally, I think they help.)

When the compound comes after a verb, consider skipping the hyphen. The rule that says you should hyphenate a compound adjective, like “an energy-efficient appliance,” doesn’t work quite the same if the compound comes after a verb.

Traditionally, AP’s guidance was to keep the hyphen if the verb is a form of “be”: for example, “That appliance is energy-efficient.” But it seems everyone has softened on these hyphens in recent years: “That appliance is energy efficient.”

Get wise to suspensive hyphenation. “The third- and fourth-grade teachers share classroom supplies.” See that hyphen pointing into space after “third”? That’s correct because “third” is sharing a word with “fourth.” That word is “grade.”

The hyphen tells the reader how “third” works in the sentence. Some folks might think it’s best to hyphenate that as one clump: “third-and-fourth-grade teachers.” That’s not a what a pro would do.

Never hyphenate “ly” adverbs. Think about the sentence “We saw snow capped mountains.” For a brief moment, a reader might think “snow” is the object of the verb “saw.” A hyphen eliminates that possibility: “We saw snow-capped mountains.”

But this is never a problem with ly adverbs because no one would think it’s the object of a verb: “We saw a beautifully furnished condo.” That’s why you’ll come off as more professional if you never hyphenate an ly adverb.

For prefixes and suffixes, go light, but trust your gut. Hyphenation rules for prefixes and suffixes are a mess, with special rules for many prefixes.

For example, some styles say to use co-worker and coauthor. For an easy, professional-looking solution, skip the hyphen when attaching a prefix if the result looks okay, “rewash,” but include a hyphen if your eye tells you it’s necessary: un-American.

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