Revisiting Hyphens


There are a lot of punctuation marks that are misunderstood and mishandled — think of the semicolon — but none so truly lacking in understanding as the hyphen.

It’s such a small mark that its importance can be overlooked. And although I’ve written about it several times, I think many folks skip right past the posts, “like” the posts without reading them, or read them without remembering the information in them — or even thinking they need to.

Why do I say this? Because I constantly see hyphens missing! And although English is not a 100% standardized language, I am pretty sure that most versions do agree on a lot of the usage, including how and why we use hyphens. (FYI: I just checked out the Canadian rules for using hyphens, and they’re about 98% the same as the U.S. rules.)

Here are 3 reminders in the American grammar system for using hyphens:

Use hyphens in all two-word numbers when we write them out; they start with twenty-one and end with ninety-nine. (You can add “and” or leave it out.)

For example:
four thousand three hundred and seventy-six ** twenty-one hundred
one hundred thirty-three

Use hyphens in compound nounssometimes. There are no hard-and-fast rules for these, so each of us needs to look them up in a good and current style guide.

For example:
fundraiser (now changing from hyphenated to solid)
a 9-year-old (all related words hyphenated)
a decision maker (still two words)

Use hyphens in compound adjectives, groups of words coming before a noun and modifying or describing it.

Here’s the general rule:  If a multi-word phrase comes directly before a noun and creates a single unified thought, hyphenate it. In this case, the phrase is functioning as a compound adjective, modifying the noun. If the phrase is used elsewhere in a sentence, the hyphens generally drop away because the phrase reverts back to its normal function.

The point here is that we have to connect ALL the words in the group, not just one or two. Here are a few examples:

Compound Adjective / Noun

up-to-date reports  
long-term benefits 
a state-of-the-art computer  
follow-up provision (a follow-up)
a five-year car loan
a 30-year mortage

the decision-making officer     back-to-school specials          
a 7-foot-2-inch player
a well-known pianist
get on-the-job training        
a high-level meeting

a 3-level condo

 Other Part of Speech

reports are up to date
benefits are for a long term

computers are state of the art
need to follow up later
loan is for five years
mortgage is for 30 years
a decision maker
going back to school
7 feet 2 inches tall
very well known
get training on the job
meeting at a high level
condo has 3 levels

What sparked today’s post is something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, even from some very good writers: She’s a 32-year old woman.

But we cannot write “she’s a 32-year old woman” because that leaves out the third word of the description! Would anyone ever say “She’s a 32-year woman”?


The word “old” is part of the description, and we’d say “She’s a 32-year-old woman.” So we have to show that “old” is part of the description by connecting it to the two previous words; otherwise, it makes no sense.

She’s a 32-year-old woman.  She’s a 32-year-old.  She is 32 years old.
He’s a 4-year-old child. He’s a 4-year-old. He is 4 years old.

But when we do not have a noun following the age description, we simply leave the hyphens out.

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