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  • Grammergency #26: A Hyphenation How-To, Part One
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Grammergency #26: A Hyphenation How-To, Part One
Written by
Annie Tucker
November 2015
Written by
Annie Tucker
November 2015

One of my absolute favorite sections of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is section 7.77, entitled “To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate.” It’s a quandary that almost every writer encounters at some point, yet very few people are clear on all the many rules surrounding the shortest dash on their computer keyboard. That’s why I’m here—to help you make sense of where to place this punctuation mark on your page and when it's best for you to leave white space alone.

For part one of our hyphenation how-to, I’m going to talk about three parts of speech where hyphens do belong:

1) In verbal phrases used as nouns

When a verbal phrase that contains a verb and a preposition (“catch up,” “make out,” “stand in,” etc.) is used as a noun, it’s often hyphenated—e.g., “We’re due for a good catch-up,” “We had a serious make-out session,” “He was a stand-in for the lead actor.” Not all such phrases are hyphenated—for instance, “take out” is closed as “take out”—but, as you’ve heard from me before, use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (www.m-w.com) to confirm what the correct format is.

2) In compound modifiers

This is a topic worthy of several posts on its own, because it requires a certain amount of practice and intuition to master, but the basic purpose of hyphens in compound modifiers, also known as phrasal adjectives, is to provide clarity about language that the reader might otherwise misinterpret. This happens most often when a compound modifier precedes the noun it’s meant to modify. The example I always think of is “small business owner”; when the phrase is open, you might think I’m describing the owner of a small business, but you might also mistake it as referring to a business owner who’s a small person. The way to avoid any such ambiguity is simply to hyphenate: “small-business owner.” The same goes for “much-needed rest,” “one-year lease,” “twentieth-century art,” “over-the-counter medicine,” “three-year-old boy” . . . and the list goes on and on. For a much more extensive summary of this subject, refer to CMS, chapter 7.

3) In single words that need a hyphen for clarity

Sometimes a single hyphen can change the entire meaning of a word. For example, “recreate” refers to leisure activities, but “re-create” means “create anew,” and “recollect” means “remember,” whereas “re-collect” means “collect again.” Similarly, “coop” probably makes you think of a place where chickens hang out, but throw a hyphen in there, and it becomes “co-op,” shorthand for a worker-owned organization.

Next time, I’ll introduce you to all the wonderful ways in which the need for hyphens has become nonexistent. (See how there’s no hyphen after “non-” there? That's just a taste of what's to come.) Until then, try dashing off a few sentences of your own, based on what you’ve learned today.

Have a grammar question? Leave it in the comments below.

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  • Since I've been a hyphenate since puberty, I thought I was pretty savvy and intuitive about those little dashes....until I edited a friend's book recently.  Suddenly, I was vexed by:  "f*ck-up," "close-up," "fundraise" and "blow job."  Hyphen, or no?  One word, or two?  Googled them all to find what's most common.  If anyone were to inspect my google history, he/she'd be in for quite a shock!

    These are great rules, Annie, and I look forward to your next post!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Thanks, Annie!

  • Annie Tucker

    Glad you're having fun with this, Alonna! (And no hyphen in "typo police"!)

  • Annie Tucker

    That makes my day, Pamela! Happy Holidays to you, too!

  • Pamela Fender

    Yay! I'm doing it right!

    Happy Holidays!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Hyphens! Love them most of the time. Sometimes my pinkie will get a mind of its own and add unintended hyphens or apostrophes. Then I need the typo(-)police. Would typo-police be hyphenated? Such fun!