Who’s Hoarding All The Hyphens?

HyphensI am rerunning this particular post (first published December 2014) because over the last ten months I have tripled my readership, and I seriously doubt anyone has gone back to the beginning of what I have written to see what they missed. You didn’t, right?

As most of you know, punctuation matters to me (and I hope to you!). And hyphens, small as they are, can make or break a reader’s understanding of what you mean as the writer. So, perhaps this quick post will help.


I ask that question because using hyphens seems to have become a non-event. Seriously. Are we so confused about using them that we just ignore them? Are there hoarders out there, betting on the law of supply and demand? (Good luck with that.)

Hyphens are essential when the meaning of a sentence can get lost without one – or a reader can end up laughing at a writer. Not good outcomes.

So, here are three rules for using hyphens (beyond using them to break words into syllables):

1. In compound (two-word) numbers, when writing the numbers out. The first is twenty-one and the last is ninety-nine.
a.  I have thirty-nine confirmed pledges.
b.  This is the twenty-first century.
c.  The check was for three hundred forty-four dollars.

2. In compound nouns, which unfortunately do NOT follow any pattern. These are terms you’ll have to look up in either a dictionary or a good grammar book like The Gregg Reference Manual. Some are separate words (decision maker), some are hyphenated (a 12-year-old), and some are written as a solid word (nonprofit). And they often change over time — which is totally unfair — as nonprofit has done (it used to be hyphenated).

3.  In compound (multi-word) adjectives, which DO follow a rule, at least most of the time. These are multi-word phrases that come in front of a noun and act as a compound adjective; therefore, all elements of the group must be connected with a hyphen. But if they are used elsewhere, they are usually not hyphenated.
a.  She is an 8-year-old child. She is an 8-year-old. She is 8 years old.
b.  We have completely up-to-date information. The information is
completely up to date.
c.  In August, stores hold back-to-school specials. The kids are going
back to school!

In terms of #3, readers might laugh if you write “We have three level townhouses.” (So do we have three that are not level as well?) That should be written  “We have three-level townhouses.”

So be on the lookout for places to put your hyphens.