Gotta Keep ‘Em Hyphenated

30 Jan

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how to correctly use the dash.  This week, we’ll be talking about the dash’s little brother, the hyphen.  The hyphen is to the dash what the iPod shuffle is to the 80 gb., what a mini-horse is to a regular-sized horse, or what a baby bug-eyed lemur from Sweden is to Amanda Seyfriend.

The hyphen is trickier than a pimp-magician.  Most of its rules are situational, and scholars often disagree on when hyphens should or should not be used.  However, there are some guidelines you can follow to keep this tricky vixen in its proper place.

The Hyphen (-)

The hyphen’s primary duty is to join things together.  In this way, it is much like the man we are having officiate our wedding, Reverend Bungee Cord.  The problem is when a hyphen is necessary and when it is not.  Here are some guidelines:

1. Use the hyphen to join a compound adjective when it precedes a noun, but not when it follows it.  A compound adjective is simply an adjective that is made up of two or more parts.  For example: two-headed, quick-witted, one-way.

I used hyphens in that list for clarity’s sake, but in general, you only need the hyphen if the compound adjective precedes the noun.  For example, you would use the hyphen if you wanted to say, “I ran down the one-way street.”  However, you would not use a hyphen in a sentence like, “The street was one way.”

This is more of a rule of thumb than anything.  Some words are automatically hyphenated, such as part-time and full-time.  And when you’re dealing with more than two modifiers (for example, mother-in-law), my opinion is that the hyphen only helps.  But this is where good judgment and a good dictionary will come in handy.  Of course, by that, I mean  Everyone knows the only use for a real dictionary is so that you can take a picture of your wedding rings on top of the entry for “love.”  Your ideas are original, brides of America!

2. Use a hyphen to join a prefix to a proper noun (a noun that must automatically be capitalized).  For example:

I am pro-United States of America, but anti-United Arab Emirates, because I always accidentally click on the latter when choosing what country I come from on a list.

As you can see, just because the nouns modified (United States of American and United Arab Emirates) are capitalized, pro and anti do not need to be capitalized.  They just need to be joined via the hyphen.

3. Also use a hyphen to join a single-letter prefix to a word.  Examples include O-Town and X-Ray.  The former is the greatest boy band of all time, and the latter was the medical device that diagnosed* me with a broken heart when I found out that Ashley Parker Angel would not be joining them for their reunion tour.

*This is not the medical use of an x-ray machine.

4. Use a hyphen to write out numbers of twenty-one to ninety-nine.  A nice way to remember this is by the classic children’s rhyme:

Twenty-one to ninety-nine

Get your drink and stand and line,

Because this is the time you can imbibe

in double digits–party time!

But you probably won’t live that long because life expectancy in the United States is 78.1 years according to most recent available data, and it might be better to spend your time drafting a will than doing Jager Bombs,

and Bingo was his name-o.

5. Don’t use a hyphen after an adverb that ends in -ly.  For example, phrases like swiftly tilting planet, badly drawn boy, or vaguely familiar concept would not be hyphenated.

The hyphen is a great little piece of punctuation.  Even though its rules can sometimes be hard to pin down, its great power is in its ability to bring things together.  In that way, it is nearly as powerful as the strongest bond of all: love.  Also, superglue-human-centipede.


2 Responses to “Gotta Keep ‘Em Hyphenated”


  1. Kiss Me, I’m Irish « Mental Health Food - March 16, 2012

    […] Gotta Keep ‘Em Hyphenated ( […]

  2. Hyphen Rules - April 12, 2012

    […] Gotta Keep ‘Em Hyphenated ( […]

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