When to use a hyphen

Maria Murnane

Maria Murnane

Best-selling Author of the Waverly Bryson Series, and 2015 International Book Award Winner

Are you using hyphens when you shouldn't be?

Hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity when two descriptive words are placed next to each other before a noun. (They are also used for compound words such as dead-end.)

For example, take the following sentence:

The small business owner got a great loan from the bank.

Is the business owner who got a great loan a small person? Or does the person who got a great loan own a small business? Most likely it's the latter, but without a hyphen it's unclear, which is why in this case a hyphen is necessary.

The small-business owner got a great loan from the bank. (CORRECT)

The small business owner got a great loan from the bank. (INCORRECT)

Here's another example:

The hard charging executive took a vacation.

Is the executive hard? Or does the executive charge hard? Most likely it's the latter, but again without a hyphen it's unclear, which is why in this case a hyphen is also necessary.

  • The hard-charging executive took a vacation. (CORRECT)
  • The hard charging executive took a vacation. (INCORRECT)

Where I often see hyphens being used incorrectly is when an adverb is next to a descriptive word before a noun. Adverbs (usually words ending in ly) modify only verbs or adjectives and not nouns, so there is no need for a hyphen.

For example:

  • The highly regarded professor gave a lecture. (CORRECT)
  • The highly-regarded professor gave a lecture. (INCORRECT)
  • The newly hired caterer got straight to work. (CORRECT)
  • The newly-hired caterer got straight to work. (INCORRECT)
  • The recently promoted director took the corner office. (CORRECT)
  • The recently-promoted director took the corner office. (INCORRECT)

If the above examples have you confused, try taking away the descriptive word in each sentence:

  • The highly professor gave a lecture. (MAKES NO SENSE)
  • The newly caterer got straight to work. (MAKES NO SENSE)
  • The recently director took the corner office. (MAKES NO SENSE)

Got it? If there's no ambiguity about what a word is modifying, then there's no need for a hyphen.

-Maria

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