Fun With Hyphens


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…) 


16 comments to Fun With Hyphens

  • So what’s your stance on nauseated versus nauseous when referring to a person feeling sick? 😉

    It’s not beating a dead horse. These reminders help. Thank you!

  • That’s a neat way of remembering it. I don’t use hyphens as much as I might because I got the impression they were going out of fashion but your point about clarity makes sense. I shall try to be more careful!

  • Precision is one of the key ways to separate good writing from bad. Good writing is precise in its meaning and its presentation. Thanks for this bit on hyphens. It’s a pet peeve of mine that many people don’t know how to use them. I screw it up plenty, but I do know the rules I’m suppose to follow. I didn’t know your trick to figure it out, though, so that’s a big help. Thanks.

  • Like Stuart, I didn’t know the trick either but value getting it right. Thanks!

  • Little things make a difference. It’s not going to make or break anyone’s manuscript, but it seems to me that the more things you can do right, the better off you are.

  • I love grammar tricks – they remind me of all those mnemonics teachers used to help me learn math. (Except the grammar ones stayed nicely written on my brain, while the math ones…not so much.)

    Did someone say something about cake? 😉

  • Tom G

    Great trick for figuring out when to use a hyphen — now tell us when to use the em dash. And should we use two dashes, or one lone “line” our SW allows us to put in our document. And don’t get me started on en dashes.

    Wait — that’s another post.

  • Ditto with the others. This makes so much sense. But unlike ordinary people (not saying I’m extra-ordinary, mind you, just moderatly different) I overuse my hyphens. My editor and CE are always teking them out. Now I know how to tell when I need them. Thank you! (Virtual hugs!)

    And I’m with Tom. Next Saturday, the em dash needs a post. As do parentheses. (Unless someone alreay did one?)

  • Em dash? Is that the race to see who gets the last bag of M&Ms from the Halloween stash?

    Seriously, I’m making this stuff up as I go along… (not the preferred method).

  • A question my wife had: is there a good way to tell when you have one of those words that’s actually two words that could use a hyphen? Like treehouse, livingroom, etc. Do these ever even need hyphens? Tree house instead of tree-house/treehouse, living room instead of living-room/livingroom… Saying livingroom is marked wrong on grammar checkers, yet saying living room seems to suggest that the room is alive or living room floor, using the info above would suggest that the room floor is living.

    And I too am just delving into the em dash, as it seems much more prevalent than it used to be (at least, based on the books I’ve read from then to now).

  • Cool post! I didn’t know the trick either!

    Daniel> my guess (again a guess) is that these words move from separate, to hyphenated, to one word. Like email. Now it’s just email. It used to be electronic mail, then it was e-mail, and now it’s just email. One word. I think the English language tends to simplicity, so we make compounds out of hyphenated words. I mean, maybe someday it will be “shortstory writer.” And so someone might be a “short shortstory writer.” “Livingroom”ends up underlined in my post–my grammar checker telling me it is misspelled. So at least microsoft hasn’t decided that it is one word yet. And everyone knows THAT’S the authority for grammar. 🙂

  • I don’t know anything more definitive than what PF suggested, and if I were going to guess, it would be pretty much “what she said.”

    As for em dashes and parantheses, that really is to a large degree a style question. I’ll read up on it and plan to write more extensively in the near-future.

  • Nice post, Ed. And I’ll add my voice to the chorus of “I didn’t know that trick.” And for the record, when I work on pieces of short fiction, I am a short, short-story writer….

  • Sarah

    Ed > excellent trick. I shall use it and pass it on to my students. I wish I had known it when I was in school. I had a dissertation committee consisting of an American, a Brit, and a Canadian. They could not agree on comma usage or hyphens which meant that no matter which way i revised a sentence someone on the committee would later accuse me of being illiterate, even if my defense was “but Dr. So and So said I had to do it this way.” Ah, good times.

  • It’s not a perfect ‘trick,’ but if you play with it, you can usually get reliable results.

    Sarah, Sounds like the perfect storm of insanity. Frankly your university should have known better than to have created such a three-headed beast.