Monday, February 6, 2012

Grammar ABCs: H is for Hyphen

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate; that is the question.

Is the glass half full or half-full? The answer is not simple. There are so many exceptions it can drive you a little batty.

The grammar books advise us to use the hyphen to form some compound words expressing a combination of ideas, such as cross-reference.

It is also used in SOME compound adjectives (note the use of the word “some”). This means when you use two words as a single modifier before a noun, those two words are hyphenated. For example, Meryl Streep is a well-known actor. The words “well and “known” combine to form one modifier for “actor.” BUT: Meryl Streep is well known. The two words are no longer describing another word and come after the noun.

Sometimes words can mean different things depending on the hyphenation. When you hyphenate the words, you are applying them as a single unit to the noun. For example: A hot-water bottle is a bottle for holding hot water. BUT: A hot water bottle is a water bottle that is hot. My pants need to be re-pressed, but my negative thoughts need to be repressed.

An exception is with a compound modifier containing an “ly” word. You do NOT use a hyphen in that case: clearly defined terms. (I want to, though!)

Use hyphens in fractions: one-half, two-thirds; and compound numbers: twenty-one (up to ninety-nine).

Use the hyphen for SOME prefixes. Usually prefixes do not need hyphens, as in predetermine or unnatural. But use the hyphen when it precedes a capitalized word (un-American) or when a capital letter combines with a word (A-frame) or when it links two words using the same letter (de-emphasize). Some prefixes, such as self-, all-, and ex- usually require hyphens.

The safest thing to do when you're unsure about hyphenating is to look the words up in a dictionary.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


  1. My bugbear is "cooperate" instead of "co-operate". It reads like something to do with housing chickens.

  2. Great post again, Heidi, but... The reason we don't hyphenate 'ly' words is that they are not adjectives but adverbs. 'Well' is also an adverb, and some style manuals argue that hyphenating 'well-known' as a modifier is incorrect, or at least deprecated. I'm teaching in Madeira, hence don't have my beloved Chicago Manual of Style with me, but I thought they dropped the hyphen in the newest edition. Then again, they are well-known for that sort of thing, and I am known for remembering these things backwards.

    --Larry Constantine (novelist Lior Samson)

  3. Well done! It was one of the most difficult lessons to teach in sixth grade, and again in eighth grade, and yet again when reviewing other authors. And I am in the same category as Larry now ... but have no reluctance to pick up my trusty dictionary or grammar book.

    I shared this post on Facebook for my writer-site friends!

    The explanation I used to give to my students was that if the two words together had a new meaning, and if the two words separate (without a hyphen) didn't sound right ...

    example: wind-blown leaves is not the same as wind leaves and blown leaves ... after a discussion that spontaneously arose regarding the best leaf blower at the hardware store...

    Oh, I do miss my students!

  4. And just to add to the fun, the British rules for hyphens are different than the American. I learned the British, so this is one more area where I'm constantly checking an American dictionary.

  5. My editing business tells me that most writers are as confound by hyphenation issues as they are by sound storytelling structure. So thank you for this post Heidi! Instead of explaining over and over, I'll just drop in this link. ;)

  6. Heidi, thank you for tackling this subject. Even knowing the rules, some folks thrown them out the window, which contributes to grammar being constantly in flux.

  7. Thanks for the "ly" word explanation, Larry. It just doesn't seem "comfortable" not to hyphenate those, but it's good to know the reason behind the rule.

    Thanks to you all for chiming in. This is a hard concept and I'm editing a ms right now that hyphenates EVERYTHING!!! Sigh.

  8. Good post, Heidi. I rely on my trusty Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, then add them to my own list for quick future reference. Amd yes, Brits hyphen a lot more words than Americans do, so I have to pay attention to whether I'm editing for an American or a British author. We Canadians tend to follow American usage on this, for the most part.

  9. Thanks for such a clear explanation, Heidi. You make it easy to remember the rules! I wish I'd had you as a teacher in grade school when I should have been learning this stuff. I was apparently looking out the window watching the landscape or the sky instead...

  10. Great post, Heidi. So, to answer your question, "Is the glass half full or half-full?" the answer is half full without the hyphen because it comes after the noun. I often hesitate (and come up with the wrong one), but after your explanation it's much clearer. Thank you!

  11. I'll be lucky to remember any of that! It does get confusing.

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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