I’m not sure why, but this group seems to have fun discussing/debating grammar and punctuation and that sort of thing (and knows a lot about it, too). So I thought today I’d drag out that small connecting thingy better known as the hyphen.
In my experience, people are more likely to not use it when they should, than they are to use it when they shouldn’t. And it’s one of those things that I see often enough, even from professional writers, that I thought it worth a quick refresher for everyone.
Why is the hyphen important? What difference does it make?
Let’s throw out a few examples and play with them:
Are you a short story writer? Or a short-story writer?
Would you rather do business with a pickled herring monger or a pickled-herring monger?
In the first example, the ‘short story writer’ is a writer who is short in stature, while the ‘short-story writer’ is some one who writes stories that are short. We don’t know how tall the second writer is, but we know his stories are short.
In the second example, the ‘pickled herring monger’ is a drunk who sells herrings, whereas the ‘pickled-herring monger’ is a person who sells herrings that have been soaked in brine (or whatever the official process for pickling fish is).
It’s all about clarity, and yes, I’m going to beat that dead horse again. I’m the official MW beater of cadaverous equines when it comes to clarity in prose (that would make me the ‘dead-horse beater,’ not the ‘dead horse-beater’ (unless of course I continue to beat up on the poor horse even after my own untimely demise)).
So is there a rule of thumb you can use to know when to use the hyphen and when to leave it by the side of the road? Is there a test you can apply to know when the hyphen belongs in the phrase and when it’s just mucking things up?
I’m so glad you asked. (Well, I’m going to assume you asked and tell you anyway. If you really don’t care, this is your chance to run away.)
(I really shouldn’t write these late at night when I’m punchy…)
Anyway… Take the third word of the phrase in question – short story writer; pickled herring monger; etc. – temporarily move it to the front of the phrase, and then see if you need to add just the word “of” for the phrase make sense. If the only thing you need is the word “of,” then you need the hyphen. In other words, if you’re talking about a ‘writer of short stories,’ you want to say ‘short-story writer.’ If you’re talking about ‘monger of pickled herrings,’ you want to say ‘pickled-herring monger.’ Etc. etc. etc.
On the other hand, if you really are talking about a ‘writer of stories who is short,’ then you need more than just the word “of” for the phrase to make sense. You can’t say, “Joe was a writer of stories short.” That makes no sense.
The bottom line is: if you can rearrange the phrase using just the word “of,” you need to use the hyphen. If it takes any more than that for the phrase to make sense, then no hyphen.
Piece-of cake, right? 😉 (Just kidding…)