A Word, Please: Mastering the complex use of hyphens


Don’t read this column. Really. It’s not like the other articles out there that impart knowledge. Instead, this one could leave you feeling like you know less than you did before you started reading.

You see, you’re already doing a pretty good job of using hyphens. Most people do. You see it in emails and online message boards and everywhere else: There just aren’t many glaring hyphenation errors out there. Not even die-hard grammar snobs who live to nitpick others’ writing are finding much fodder in your hyphen usage.

This is curious because, if you’re like most people, you haven’t spent much time reading up on hyphenation rules. You’d probably be hard pressed to explain why you hyphenate the way you do. Yet you’re doing it pretty well, anyway. Neat trick.

Enter the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s especially true for hyphens because, with this punctuation mark, the more you know, the less you feel like you know.

So the rest of this column, which looks at basic rules of hyphenation, could make you a worse hyphenater than you were 15 minutes earlier. That’s why you might want to stop reading now.

Still here? OK. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The rules of hyphenation can be broken up into three categories: compound modifiers, prefixes and suffixes, and nouns and verbs.

Compound modifiers are usually adjectives made of two or more words, like “headline-grabbing” in “a headline-grabbing celebrity.” See how the two hyphenated words work together as an adjective to modify the noun “celebrity”? That’s a compound modifier.

Some compound modifiers are already in the dictionary, like “good-looking.” But through the power of hyphens, you can make up your own compound modifiers: soul-soothing, fuzzy-faced, intermediate-income — the possibilities are practically infinite.

Compound modifiers are often hyphenated, but the rules leave a lot of room for judgment, saying to do so whenever a hyphen smooths the ride for the reader. For example, if you’re writing about a man-eating lobster, the hyphen helps the reader see you don’t mean a man who’s eating lobster.

There are tons of exceptions. For example, compounds containing “ly” adverbs should never be hyphenated. So “a recently married couple” takes no hyphen.

Still other rules and exceptions vary by editing style. If you were following the Chicago Manual of Style, you’d hyphenate “half-asleep” either before or after a noun (a half-asleep worker, a worker who was half-asleep), but if you were following Associated Press style, you’d hyphenate it before, but not after a noun (a half-asleep worker, a worker who was half asleep).

Prefixes and suffixes have their own rules. Usually, when you’re using a prefix or suffix to create a term not already listed in the dictionary, you omit the hyphen and just make the term one word — despite any objections you get from your spellchecker: prelunch, suborbital, blockwide.

But in AP style, if you’re attaching the prefix or suffix to a number or proper name, you hyphenate: pre-1960, sub-Saharan, America-wide.

Plus, you have to hyphenate repeated prefixes as in “anti-antiestablishment,” and you hyphenate prefixes that end in “i” or “a” when they precede a word beginning with the same vowel, as in “anti-intelligence” and “extra-articulate.”

If you were following Chicago style, some of those hyphens would be replaced with a mark called an en dash, which is not to be confused with an em dash.

For nouns and verbs, hyphenation is all about the official dictionary spelling. There’s no formula you can apply to know that “a water-skier water-skis on water skis.” You have to look it up. Make-believe, makeover, gridlock, grown-up, high five, ice pick — if it’s a noun or verb, you just can’t know which combinations are “closed” (one word), which are “open” and which are hyphenated unless you look them up.

And because you’re hyphenating pretty well already, why bother?

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at