Small Things that Matter #4: Hyphen Hassles

Perhaps no piece of punctuation gives us more trouble than the hyphen, in particular when we are trying to decide whether to hyphenate a compound modifier. In that realm, the average writer is as consistent as the stock market these days.

So, let’s review:

When a noun has more than one modifier, the modifiers are hyphenated when they act as a unit. In other words, they refer to the noun in a collective way. For example, we would refer to an “almost-empty bottle,” or a “soft-pedaling approach.” Or an “orange-yellow sky.”

The rule is that you use a hyphen when the individual elements of the modifier cannot work alone without changing the meaning of the phrase. So, in the previous example, you wouldn’t say “almost bottle,” nor is the meaning “empty bottle.” Same thing with “soft approach.” Of course, you could say “orange sky,” but that is not the intended meaning.

Simple, right? Well, yes and no. The problem is the rule is clear for only very specific set of circumstances.  It is the complications and exceptions to the rule that not only cause the problems but also explain why writers muck it up so often.

First of all, we need to distinguish compound modifiers from a simple series of modifiers. For example, we wouldn’t hyphenate “cold, dark night.” The individual modifiers work just fine alone. “A cold night.” “A dark night.”

And we also need to watch out for modifiers that are working to enhance everything in the phrase that follows them. For example, “hazy blue sky.” In this case “hazy” is modifying “blue sky,” rather than acting as a compound with “blue” to modify “sky.” It is worth noting, I suppose, that if you were waxing poetic and describing a shade of blue called “hazy blue,” you would consider hyphenating it.

The point of using a hyphen is to signal the reader to consider the two words together before moving on. We, as readers, are trained to think of modifiers as stand alone entities and writers need to do their part to interrupt that training when the sentence requires it.

Along the same lines: Remember that, in most styles, compound modifiers that include an “ly” adverb are not hyphenated. Why? Because readers expect “ly” adverbs to work with another modifier to do their jobs. So, we would not write “widely-distributed information.” But we would write “wide-mouthed frog.”

And just to add a couple more things to the mix.

  1. We do not use hyphens with compound modifiers that routinely appear together. For example, we do not hyphenate “High School” in “High School Musical.” Or “men’s basketball” in “men’s basketball team.”
  2. We do not hyphenate adjectives that have been made comparative or superlative by “most” and “more” The correct usage is “most talented writer” and “more qualified applicant.”

Well, that is probably as clear as mud, but you have to start somewhere. Good Luck

Related posts:


  1. Bob says

    The grammar lesson is fine, and thanks for that, but I’m sure that the expression is not “soft-peddle” but “soft-pedal”, from the foot pedal typically on the left of the three under the piano, which is used to produce the muted “una corda” effect.

  2. Lucy says

    Thanks a lot for the easy-to-use rules. I’m interested in hyphenated clauses used as modifiers. Could you possibly advise where to search?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *