Grammar Hunting for Help with Hyphens |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Hunting for Help with Hyphens

Few components of English grammar have puzzled writers and editors more than the hyphen. When do we insert it? When don’t we? Why does it appear here but not there when last time it was there?

Hyphen use remains in continual flux. The stylistic tug of war could be seen in 2019 updates to The Associated Press Stylebook, including:

  • reversing an earlier decision to omit the hyphen from phrases such as first-quarter touchdown. The reversal followed guidance that “no hyphen is needed in a compound modifier if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen … one example is first quarter touchdown.” (However, removing the hyphen was inconsistent with style being maintained for first-half run.)
  • deleting the long-standing guidance that hyphen use is “optional in most cases” and that “the fewer the hyphens the better.”
  • maintaining previous wording that use of the hyphen is not standardized and can be “a matter of taste, judgment, and style sense.”
  • keeping hyphens out of phrases such as first grade student and high school student.
  • removing the requirement to hyphenate most compound modifiers after versions of the verb to be (e.g., The basket is old fashioned [not old-fashioned]).

As might be anticipated, the developments sparked more dissent among writers and editors. The reactions lay mainly in the universal desire for resolute rules instead of pliable guidelines.

Having guidelines rather than rules requires us to take typographical risks at our own peril: Someone somewhere is sure to call us out on our hyphenation or lack thereof. Without strict principles, we must rely on our mettle as arbiters of grammatical details.

While we would love to lead the way to resolution, we recognize the bag is open and too many cats are free. We therefore will support what else AP has to say in helping with the hyphen conundrum:

  • Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity (recover, re-cover; recreation, re-creation) or to form a single idea from two or more words (jack-of-all-trades).
  • Think of hyphens as an aid to readers’ comprehension. If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it (small-business owner, high-income workers). If it just adds clutter without helping to clarify, don’t use it (chocolate chip cookie, dog food bowl).
  • If the number of hyphens in a phrase becomes tedious, try rephrasing. It’s an article about how to use hyphens without strict rules, not it’s a how-to-use-hyphens-without-strict-rules article.

We further suggest not relying too much on spellchecking software for clarity on hyphens. This is because they will often test the spelling of each word, including those with a hyphen. For example, it will not flag either nontraditional or non-traditional as an error.

When in doubt about hyphens, refer to your preferred style source (including ours) or consult an online dictionary.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve considered in this article, choose the correct answers concerning hyphens in the following sentences.

1. The third baseman hit a [bases loaded / bases-loaded] triple in the ninth inning.

2. We hope to [re-cover / recover] our company’s losses in the next quarter.

3. Montreal, Canada, has many [French-speaking / French speaking] people.

4. The sky looks [pinkish red / pinkish-red].

5. When Tanille grows up, she wants to be a [high-school / high school] teacher.



Pop Quiz Answers

1. The third baseman hit a bases-loaded triple in the ninth inning.

2. We hope to recover our company’s losses in the next quarter.

3. Montreal, Canada, has many French-speaking people.

4. The sky looks pinkish red.

5. When Tanille grows up, she wants to be a high school teacher.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

9 responses to “Hunting for Help with Hyphens”

  1. Kathrin Wagner says:

    I see an annoying move to use the hyphen as a dash-substitute in print in even the most respected publications. Can anything be done about that? It should be clarified that whereas a hyphen joins, a dash separates and creates a pause (slightly more than a comma does). In general, proofreading overall seems to be less and less reliable – a pet peeve of mine!

  2. Abdul says:

    I am very grateful for this info.

  3. Greg Olsen says:

    How does one distinguish between a “high school student” (that is, a student that is high on drugs) as opposed to a student that is in high school?

    I realize “high” may be an idiom or colloquialism, but the students in this example are two, confusing, distinct things.

    I’d advocate for the hyphen in describing the latter in this form: My son is a high-school student.”

    Similar to the high-income worker cited later in the piece.

    Also, how about “back of the door”? Hang the coat on the back of the door. I have a back-of-the-door hanger.

    Here’s an example I recall from my twelfth-grade English teacher in which she mandated no hyphen ever be used:

    “Processed baby food” may be one form of nourishment, but processed-baby food is horrific.

    I wanted to write “high-school English teacher,” but now I am curious if “twelfth-grade English teacher” takes a hyphen?

    • If you wish to describe a student who is high on drugs or alcohol, why include the word school, which is essentially redundant? You might write a high student or better the student is high.

      Our post Hyphenating Between Words explains that compound adjectives—adjectives that act as one idea with other adjectives—get hyphenated in front of nouns. Therefore, the phrase “a back-of-the-door hanger” contains hyphens because it contains a compound adjective describing a hanger. Hang the coat on the back of the door does not contain a compound adjective. The phrase “twelfth-grade English teacher” contains a compound adjective. Also, please see our response to you of March 23, 2014, in the post The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2.

  4. Kristyne Gilbert says:

    When using a title, is it “53rd-annual Town & Country Art Show” or “53rd Annual Town & Country Art Show”?

  5. James Goodall says:

    Quick question: In the example “well-presented FAQs,” would you include a hyphen here because it modifies the noun? But in the next example “FAQs that are well presented,” would you leave the hyphen out because the “well presented” comes after the noun? Thanks.

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