First posted December 2014 . . . but from what I keep seeing, it’s worth reminding everyone who uses the AMERICAN grammar system of the basic uses for hyphens!
I ask because using hyphens seems to have become a non-event. Seriously. Are we so confused about using them 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 numbers, when writing the numbers out. The first one 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 or the Chicago Manual of Style (see its table for hyphenation here). Some are separate words (decision maker), some are hyphenated (a 12-year-old), and some are one solid word (nonprofit). And they often change over time (which is totally unfair).
3. In compound 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 (compound noun). 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!
d. We have built three-level townhouses. The townhouses all have three levels.
e. Let’s hold a follow-up meeting next week. Let’s hold a follow-up (compound noun) next week. Let’s follow up next week.
In terms of #3d, readers might laugh if you write: We have built three level townhouses. (As opposed to ones that are crooked?)
Yes, hyphens can matter!