Punctuation: Hyphen

Smaller than a dash, the hyphen brings words together rather than setting them apart.Use a hyphen to form compound modifiers.


The Definition: Two or more words are acting as a single modifier for a noun.

The Clue: They belong together. They are not part of a series that can separately describe the noun.

  • I think Steve is a well-intentioned volunteer.
  • Steve is a helpful, supportive volunteer.
  • The 20-year-old man was too young to buy alcohol.

The Rule: If you can put “and” between the modifiers and it makes sense, it is not a compound modifier.

The Exception: If the modifier includes “very” or an “-ly” adverb, these words alone indicate that they are part of a compound modifier, so a hyphen is redundant.

  • Most people think they have a well-developed sense of style.
  • Steve has a highly developed sense of style.
  • Susan has an open-minded view of the world.
  • Doug thinks he has very liberal views.

The Kicker: Most compound modifiers are hyphenated when they follow the linking verb “to be.”

  • I think his proposal is short-sighted.

The Caveat: But be careful to distinguish between a compound modifier and the same words not used as a modifier.

  • His too-small effort couldn’t save the game.
  • The coat he gave his mother was too small.

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