The hyphen. Just a tiny tittle of a horizontal line, easily overlooked in a sentence or a paragraph. How complicated could that be?
Oddly enough, a bit of punctuation that’s easy to write isn’t necessarily easy to use properly. Writers love to misuse hyphens…lots and lots of hyphens. That’s a pity, especially for those writers responsible for producing elegant online content for professional websites. Punctuation errors—just like grammar and usage blunders—disrupt the reader’s experience and water down the credibility of the whole business website.
In short: if you want to write well, learn how to use the hyphen correctly.
The Handy-Dandy Guide to Hyphen Hijinks
The good news is that the hyphen really has only three common uses, and as a web content writer you care about only two of those. Let’s begin by reviewing the three primary functions of hyphens.
#1: Hyphens build composite adjectives that appear before a noun
A composite adjective (also called a compound adjective) is a group of two or more words working together to describe a noun. We use hyphens to join these words together to show they’re working as a unit. Examples:
- Beady-eyed stranger
- Middle-class family
- On-the-job accident
- Best-selling nonfiction book
- Cutting-edge SEO strategies
- Over-the-counter drugs
- Out-of-pocket expenses
- Toll-free number
- One-size-fits-all maternity clothing
It’s worth noting that, almost always, the hyphens are not used when the description follows the noun. For instance, your promotional call to action may say “our well-prepared podiatry team is ready to ease your foot pain,” but the hyphens would be omitted in “our podiatry team is well prepared for any emergency.”
Finally, when a series of two or more composite adjectives share a common final term, it’s conventional to use a format called the “suspensive hyphen.” The (different) first parts of each element will appear with a hyphen at the end, and the final composite adjective of the series will be hyphenated as usual. This is most commonly encountered when numbers are involved. A handful of examples will show how it’s done:
- A group of eight- to ten-year-old children
- The first- and second-place winners at the County Fair
- Possible penalties include 30-, 60-, or 90-day jail terms
#2: Hyphens appear at the end of the line to avoid a ragged right margin
This is the use of the hyphen you shouldn’t worry about too much. Text justification is rarely a major concern for online writing; because the text has to be readable on a variety of different devices, it’s become common to let the device make the best fit of words on the screen and not to obsess over perfectly aligned right margins.
You may be more concerned about fully justified text if you are writing reports or promotional books for your customers or clients, but even then the typesetter—not the writer—is primarily concerned with the final layout decisions.
#3: Hyphens always appear in some specific phrases
Up-to-date. Light-year. Back-to-back. Blue-green algae. The Prelude and Fugue in C-minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Hoo boy! In English, what counts as the conventional spelling of a word or phrase is always in transition. A common pattern is for two or more separate words to become a hyphenated compound, and then evolve to lose the hyphen; thus, electronic mail became e-mail, which became today’s email. There isn’t always a recognizable pattern or rule to apply to determine whether a particular phrase should be hyphenated; one must either memorize the list or consult a dictionary.
That being said, there are a few common patterns where one may expect hyphenated words:
- When numbers (up to 99) or fractions are involved: forty-two; one-third; chapters 14-16; a 40-hour work week; an eighteenth-century statesman.
- With some prefixes and (more rarely) suffixes: ex-husband; anti-poverty, self-absorbed, president-elect. Hyphens are often required if they avoid two vowels or three consonants in a row: anti-inflammatory; cross-reference, re-energize.
- When one of the words is capitalized: ex-Soviet; trans-Ural; post-World War II; pre-Civil War.
- With certain names: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean-Michel Jarre.
- With some verbs that have evolved from noun phrases: to court-martial; to test-drive; to double-click. There are lots of exceptions, however, such as to whitewash, to proofread, or to babysit.
- With some nouns that have evolved from verb phrases: We said our thank-yous to our hosts and headed home from the dinner party.
- When adding a hyphen clears up potential ambiguity. You need a hyphen to distinguish between recover (to regain something that was no longer in your possession) and re-cover (to cover something a second time). Similarly, a running-shoe store sells athletic footwear, but a running shoe store is a shoe store that is jogging down the street.
Taming the Ill-Tempered Hyphen
It’s a sad-but-true observation that, if you use your hyphens perfectly when writing, nobody will notice. On the other hand, any error will be spotted promptly. Lest your website become mocked, avoid these common errors:
Don’t use a hyphen instead of a dash.
And certainly don’t try using two adjacent hyphens to simulate a dash. Hyphens and dashes look similar, but they have differing functions; respect those differences by using the right punctuation mark for the job.
Don’t use a hyphen for most adverb-and-adjective combinations.
When either the adverb “very” or any adverb ending in “-ly” precedes an adjective, there is no need for a hyphen—even if a noun immediately follows. The adverb provides the same binding power that a hyphen gives to composite adjectives, so an actual hyphen isn’t needed. Examples: easily deluded pirates, dangerously reckless driving, very advanced mesothelioma, legally liable truck driver, thoroughly experienced medical team; but compare with a too-hasty divorce (“too” is an adverb that doesn’t end in “-ly”), a well-meant apology.
Take special care when dealing with ages.
Hyphenate the phrase when an age is used as a descriptive adjective before its noun: a 33-year-old concert violinist; the three-month-old infant in the car seat. Do not use hyphens when the adjectival phrase is remote from the noun: my daughter is three months old. But, if the age phrase is being used as a noun rather than an adjective, it does use hyphens: You have the artistic talents of a six-year-old.
J’accuse! Real World Examples
It’s always fun to look at actual content writing that has crossed my desk recently. I don’t want to embarrass the writers, so I have edited out some identifying details. Please do not snicker.
- “Don’t be ashamed to take breaks when you need them. Stopping to take a breather for 15 minutes is a lot better than taking a 15 day break because you overexerted yourself and got injured.” There should be a hyphen in 15-day to signify it’s an enumerated period functioning as an adjective.
- “They also believe she was driving more than three times the 30 miles per hour speed limit.” Because the phrase “30 miles per hour” is functioning to specify the speed limit, it should be hyphenated: 30-miles-per-hour. An alternative would be to use the abbreviation 30 mph without hyphens.
- “Certain changes in the structure of the body may indicate abnormal growth - this is especially true when it comes your baby’s feet.” Ouch! A hyphen is being used as a dash here, and it creates a run-on sentence. A semicolon would work best here.
- “These principles can apply to essentially any job, in any industry - not just the 9 to 5 folks who sit at desks.” The hyphen after industry should be a dash. However, there should be hyphens in “9-to-5.”
- “Though we all age, we do so in different ways and in many cases, a healthy 90 year old may be more capable of driving than a 70 year old with chronic health problems.” We need to see hyphens in both 90-year-old and 70-year-old.
- “There can also be several layers to a construction accident injury because various third party individuals, like subcontractors or a building’s owner, could be involved and held liable for being negligent.” The term third-party should be hyphenated.
- “During arbitration, the parties will both present their arguments to a qualified, impartial third-party called an arbitrator.” Because “third party” is used as a noun phrase rather than an adjective, it’s not hyphenated.
You Are Now Leaving the Hyphen Nation. Please Proceed Carefully
To be sure, mastering the rules for punctuation is just an early mile marker on your journey to creating excellent website content. Command of an expansive vocabulary used well will speed you on the way, but won’t get you to your destination by itself. Great content requires you to apply a dozen proficiencies—or more!—all at once to appeal to your readers intellectually and emotionally.
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