Is your mother in law (e.g., a lawyer or a judge)? Or is it your mother-in-law?
Perhaps it’s lost in the shadow of more grandiose punctuation marks, such as the apostrophe, comma, or semicolon, but the hyphen is a fantastic tool.
Not to be confused with the dash (which is deployed to separate ideas or sections in a sentence), the hyphen is used to join words together to make new ones and to link syllables when a word breaks off at the end of a line and continues on the next. More importantly, the hyphen brushes away ambiguity. For instance, when you tell your boss you want to re-sign your contract, he won’t think you wanted to resign instead.
Try out these hyphen usage tips to maintain your credibility and provide your readers with a little clarity!
Do Use the Hyphen in These Scenarios
– Use a hyphen for compound modifiers (2 or more words used to modify a noun) or compound adjectives that occur before the noun.*
John, pass me the ibuprofen. His out-of-tune bagpipes are giving me a headache.
His bagpipes are horrendously out of tune. John, pass me the ibuprofen.
*Exception: Use a hyphen if the compound modifier or compound adjective follows any form of the verb to be (e.g., is, are, etc.) For example: He is well-known.
– Use a hyphen if the phrase doubles vowels or triples consonants.
Normville’s ultra-average citizens hold the record for maintaining the national average.
The shell-like exterior of the dung beetle protects it from being easy prey.
– Use a hyphen with fractions (unless it’s already hyphenated, e.g., forty-four hundredths) and numbers ending in y.
I swear that dog is two-thirds canine, one-third demon.
You won sixty-three coconuts, and twenty-four umbrellas!
– Use a hyphen when using a number (not spelled out) and a unit of measurement to form an adjective or with spelled out money figures.
We unearthed a dozen thirty-five-year-old zombie films and then had a 24-hour marathon.
His haunted eyes above his four-o’clock shadow were telling of his stressful day.
– Use a hyphen with dual-heritage adjectives.
The archaeologist found artifacts from the Greco-Roman period.
My father is Austro-Hungarian and my mother is Italian-American.
– Use a hyphen if the word like is the latter half of the compound.
The doll’s life-like eyes were disturbing; I locked it in the cupboard.
Hyphen Blunders and Howlers
– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound occurs after the noun (unless it occurs after the verb to be).
The salesman sold his door-to-door wares.
The salesman sold his wares by walking door to door.
– Don’t use a hyphen if both words of the compound phrase make sense separately (even before a noun).
Janet’s naughty old cat got into the bakery again.
– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound phrase includes the word very.
“What a very chic scarf!” Harriet exclaimed to Susan. “A very expensive scarf it was …” Susan’s husband muttered under his breath.
– Don’t use a hyphen if the compound begins with an adverb ending in -ly.
Bob’s mother had freakishly coiffed hair that stood so high, it brushed the ceiling.
– Use a hyphen with the following family names: in-law, ex, and great. Don’t use a hyphen with the following family names: step, half, and grand.
My mother-in-law claimed her half sister had a great-aunt whose grandmother’s ex-husband met President Lincoln.
Prefixes are a little tricky and it’s often best to just look it up, but we won’t leave you without a few clues:
– Use a hyphen to change or preserve the meaning of the root word (often used in prefixes pre, pro, and re).
I’m going to re-sign.
I’m going to resign.
– Self and quasi always accompanied by a hyphen.
Peter Parker’s self-effacing behavior is to make people pay no attention to him.
– Unless in the presence of a capitalized word (e.g., anti-Antarctica) or if you are preserving the meaning of the word, don’t use a hyphen with the following prefixes:
Anti, bi, co, extra, inter, micro, mini, multi, mid, non, over, post, pre, pro, re, semi, sub, super, trans, ultra, un, and under.
There are TONS of exceptions and most style guides recommend using the hyphen sparingly. If you only use the hyphen when the context is ambiguous, you should be safe. Don’t forget to watch out for those spellcheck programs; they are not infallible! Use these hyphen tips to strengthen your writing skills, as well as maintain your credibility as an Expert Author. We will have more punctuation howlers coming up in the next few weeks, so stop by the Blog for the latest and greatest tips to error-free articles.
Did you miss our last edition of Top Punctuation Howlers? Find out more about the quotation mark here!