‘Why do we have hyphens at all?’ you may ask. Well, it’s a simple piece of punctuation that helps us form more readily understandable descriptions. Without a hyphen, for example, this next sentence could be interpreted in a very different way.
There were thirty-odd people in the room.
In this form, with the hyphen, it’s clear that there were about thirty people in the room. Take away the hyphen, however, and the room is mysteriously full of thirty people who are odd.
Here’s another example which demonstrates just how important hyphens can be.
The knife-wielding children.
Here, we can tell that the children are wielding knives. (They shouldn’t be, the naughty things, but for the sake of this example…!) However, if we take out the hyphen, suddenly it’s the knife that is potentially wielding the children. Although that’s an amusing mental picture, the lack of the hyphen has twisted the meaning of the sentence into something completely unintended.
Using hyphens (sometimes incorrectly called dashes) can be a tricky process, as the few simple rules that aid us in their usage often have as many exceptions as they do followers. But let’s give it a go! Note that the uses of hyphens are sometimes similar to that of dashes. If you can’t find an example below that matches a particular situation, it might belong to the realm of the dash.
Some prefixes require the use of hyphens, such as:
My ex-wife left me two years ago.
I live in a semi-detached house.
The coast is peppered with anti-aircraft guns.
The teacher had to re-mark the essay.
However, just to confuse things, some do not, such as:
Antidisestablishmentarianism is a stupidly long word.
John was excommunicated.
The children entered the semicircular room.
I had to sublet my house to pay off the mortgage.
The use of prefixes in time is often contested. Is the hyphen necessary? I would argue that it is, as a hyphenated description of time sometimes forms a compound adjective.
This music is typical of a mid-Romantic composer.
My parents were born in the mid-1930s.
This is a mid-Elizabethan painting.
A compound adjective is when two or more words are combined into a single description. These can come before or after the noun they are describing. Examples of compound adjectives coming before the noun include:
There was a six-month waiting list to see the specialist.
Sarah produced a ready-made picnic from the boot of her car.
It was a part-time position, so John had lots of spare time.
However, it’s not as simple as just putting in hyphens whenever two describing words happen to sit next to each other. While some adverbs work fine with hyphens, such as fast-moving or quick-thinking, leave out your hyphen when using an adverb that ends in ‘-ly’ or when including words like very in the sentence. For example:
He took a very obvious course of action.
The brightly lit hallway was packed with people.
There were hastily placed knives and forks on the table.
Just like very, words such as more, best, worst and less are also exceptions to the compound adjective hyphen rule.
It was a less interesting lesson this week.
Caroline was the worst performing student in the long jump.
The more advanced children moved on to the next subject early.
A suspended hyphen is when two or more compound adjectives are used to describe the same noun one after the other.
On the street were two-storey houses, three-storey houses and four-storey houses.
Since reading this is a bit of a mouthful, we can use a suspended hyphen to condense all that information and turn it into:
On the street were two-, three- and four-storey houses.
As in a lot of instances in English, however, it is debated whether the hyphen is necessary for the first two compound adjectives within the suspended form. Some guides would have us write it like so:
On the street were two, three and four-storey houses.
I personally prefer the neatness of the latter method, however, others prefer the multiple hyphens just to do away with any unnecessary confusion as to what the two and three adjectives actually refer. Unless you have to adhere to a certain style guide, this one’s up to you, as both are considered correct.
When writing out numbers, hyphens should be used from twenty-one upwards. For example:
Nine hundred and twenty-one
Note that nine hundred does not require a hyphen, nor should one hundred, seventeen thousand or ten million.
Using numbers as a description should require the use of a hyphen, however, as this creates a compound adjective. For example:
The engine pulled the thirty-two-carriage train.
It was a twenty-one-storey building.
The bridge had a fifty-foot drop to the river below.
The use of hyphens in describing age is more readily definable. When using age as an adjective or a noun, use a hyphen.
Paul opened a twelve-year-old bottle of wine in celebration.
The seven-month-old cub was very adventurous.
Sally cradled the two-year-old in her arms.
However, when the age comes after the noun, a hyphen is not used to create compound adjectives, due to their position in the sentence. Note that the hyphen still occurs for connecting numbers twenty-one and upwards.
Harry’s grandmother was only seventy years old.
The puppy was twenty-two months old.
Despite the fact the cheese was only two days old, it smelt disgusting.
Sometimes, when we describe something as being similar to something else, we add ‘-like’ onto the end of the noun. Unlike some additions of ‘-esque’, adding ‘-like’ onto a word does require the use of a hyphen to dismiss any element of confusion. For example:
This movie is rather Bond-like in essence.
The thief was cat-like in his movements.
Mary’s teacher had blonde hair, a thin mouth and snake-like eyes.
The longest hyphenated adjective I have used so far in this article is three, as in twelve-year-old and thirty-two-carriage. The length of these stacked modifiers is normal and perfectly accepted. When they start getting too long, however, the scale of confusion begins to rise. For example:
Jeremy had always been a rebel-without-a-cause sort of boy. (Fine.)
It was one of those put-on-your-brown-coloured-trousers situations. (Borderline.)
Marjorie hated the I-put-my-bag-on-the-seat-beside-me-and-don’t-move-it-when-someone-wants-to-sit-down-because-I’m-too-cool school kids who caught her bus. (Bonkers.)
In the third example, the hyphens are clearly out of control. Though this technique of stacking modifiers can be used in a comical context—and quite successfully, I might add—its overuse should be avoided for more formal contexts. That last sentence could be reworded to something like this, for example:
Marjorie hated the ‘cool’ school kids who caught her bus and refused to move their bags off the seat beside them for those who wanted to sit.
A brief note on technical terms that no longer need hyphens. Please don’t continue to use hyphens with words such as online and email, as on-line and e-mail are considered antiquated spellings. It is especially important in business situations because, if your business is attempting to give off a modern vibe and your customers see e-mail, they will immediately scoff and leave.
In conclusion, while hyphens can be a very useful tool, do not abuse or overuse them. They can be your best friend and help you convey complex ideas and events but they can also be your worst enemy if you use them incorrectly.