Many of us had to read Romeo and Juliet in high school English class, particularly the balcony scene. As a result, many of us now know that when Juliet asks “wherefore art thou Romeo?” she doesn’t care about Romeo’s physical location as much as why he’s named Romeo. I’m sure I can’t have been the only person who thought “wherefore” meant “where.”
Just as many of us were confused about what “wherefore” meant, there is a lot of confusion around the proper use of hyphens. We tend to stick them into our writing wherever it seems like they might be useful, regardless of whether they serve an actual grammatical purpose. One of my favorite grammar bloggers, Mignon Fogarty, calls the hyphen a “look-it-up punctuation mark.” This is very good advice, as hyphen use is complicated, and unlike many punctuation marks, there are few hard-and-fast rules. If you’re ever unsure about whether you should use a hyphen, look it up in a dictionary of your choice. But here are a few general rules to help guide your use of hyphens:
Words that are hyphenated
First, it’s important to know that some words are always hyphenated, regardless of their use. “X-ray,” for example, is always hyphenated. Until fairly recently, email was a hyphenated word. “E-book,” on the other hand, still is a hyphenated word, as is “e-commerce.” While these always-hyphenated words may change from time to time, no matter how they are used, they come with a hyphen.
This is the most common use of hyphens. Compound modifiers are two or more words that together make an adjective to modify a single noun. When these modifiers are placed before the noun, they should be hyphenated. When placed after the noun, they are not. For example, Anita enjoys working in a dog-friendly office. In this case, because “dog-friendly” is two words that are together modifying the noun “office,” the phrase is hyphenated. If you were to instead say, The office is dog friendly, the hyphen is not needed.
This is why ages are sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. For example, Eight-month-old Roman is extremely cute. “Eight-month-old” represents three words that together are describing the adorable baby Roman. If you were to instead say, Roman is eight months old and very cute, “eight months old” would be describing Roman, but not modifying him.
A hyphen is not needed when you have two words that might go together, but aren’t being used as a modifier for another word. For example, This software makes a task easier for the end user. Often, “end user” ends up hyphenated, as those two words do go together. However, “end user” is not modifying anything; it’s simply a two-word noun. “Two word,” on the other hand, are two words that are being used together to describe what type of noun we’re discussing, so would require a hyphen.
Despite how common hyphens are with adjectives, they are rarely, if ever, used with adverbs. Adverbs are words that modify adjectives – the easiest way to think about this is to remember words that end in “-ly.” It is expected that these words will modify other words, so adding a hyphen does not change the meaning and therefore it is not needed. For example, The very tall account coordinator Greg is funny. In this instance, “very” modifies “tall,” which modifies “Greg.” However, if we were to instead describe Greg as “crazy tall,” then we would want to hyphenate “crazy-tall” since together these two words are modifying “Greg.”
Confused? Use a Hyphen to Reduce Confusion
There are a lot of other grammar rules about hyphens, but many of them boil down to eliminating confusion. A good way to test if you should be using a hyphen is to remove it and see if it creates ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence. For example, if you were talking about a new product that enabled “real time management,” there is a difference between “real-time management” and “real time management.” In the first instance, you’re discussing enabling management that happens in real time. However, in the second instance, you’re talking about enabling a real ability to manage your time. These are two very different concepts.
Sometimes the differences are not quite so blatant, but if there is a chance that removing or adding the hyphen changes the meaning, be sure to think that through before hyphenating. If the hyphen does not change the meaning, then you probably don’t need it.
Miss anything? Let me know in the comments section!