Hyphens (not to be confused with dashes) are pretty simple punctuation marks to use; however they are commonly misused! Let’s make a quick review of how to properly use these tools, which are often virtually ignored by those notorious computer spell-checkers.
There are several common uses, of which most of us are already aware:
1-Compound Adjectives: When two (or more!) words form an adjective together and come directly before a noun, they are sometimes referred to as compound modifiers and they almost always require a hyphen. Here are a few examples:
The robe was made of fire-resistive materials.
They signed a long-term contract.
If the adjectives were placed after the noun, then the hyphen wouldn’t be required at all, as in:
The robe is fire resistive.
The business contract was long term.
2-Numbers as Adjectives and Nouns: This is an easy rule to remember. When an age is used either as an adjective or a noun, it requires a hyphen. Let’s look at adjectives first.
The two-year-old horse won the race.
The two-year-old boy cried all the way home.
When the noun is implied, as in the case of referring to the horse or the boy as a two-year-old, the hyphens stay. However if the age comes after a noun and verb, the hyphen is NOT required. Let’s rewrite the sentences:
The horse is two years old.
The boy is two years old.
3-Using Hyphens with Prefixes: This is a rather touchy one, as these MIGHT work without the hyphens in some cases, so whenever you run into one of these, it could be well worth taking the extra ten seconds required to research and make sure that your use of a hyphen is warranted. Traditionally, we use hyphens with prefixes like “mid” and “ex” and sometimes “re.” Here are a few examples:
The mid-1920s was an exciting time in history.
My ex-wife is very beautiful.
How many times to you plan to re-read that newspaper?
In the case of the final example, it is becoming more acceptable to drop the hyphen with many “re” words. Even reread slips through the spell checker just fine, as do words like “reinvent,” “reintroduce” and “rewrite.” In this ONE instance, I would concur with the spell-checker and leave the hyphen in my head.
4-Other Uses: There are also a few other miscellaneous uses for hyphens, for which we’ve included a few examples below:
- Writing numbers (from twenty-one to ninety-nine)
- Prefixes that precede a word with a capital letter, as in “anti-Russian”
- Joining a single letter to word, as in “x-ray” and “A-frame”
As usual, there are exceptions to these rules as well…especially with regard to the Internet and that ubiquitous “e” prefix. Several years ago, we dropped the hyphen from email and eBook, but the hyphen still remains in words like e-commerce.
When in doubt, check your nearest grammar and style guides!