This blog was featured on 02/11/2020
Refresher on Hyphens
Contributor
Written by
Maria Murnane
February 2020
Contributor
Written by
Maria Murnane
February 2020

One use of hyphens is for clarification when there are multiple descriptive words before a noun. For example:

  • The small-business owner went to the bank and requested a loan. (CORRECT)

In this case the hyphen makes it clear that the person requesting a loan is the owner of a small business, not that the owner of the business is a small person.

  • The big-hearted teacher gave each of his students a personalized letter at the end of the year. (CORRECT)

Here the hyphen makes it clear that the teacher has a big heart, not that he is a big man.  

(Note: Hyphens are also used in some compound words such as “twenty-five” or “merry-go-round,” but that’s not the use case I’m addressing in this post.)

Where things go wrong:

I frequently see hyphens where no clarification is necessary. Here are some examples: 

  • Gloria stood up, leaving a plate of barely-eaten food. (INCORRECT)

Why no hyphen is needed: There’s no doubt that “barely” is modifying “eaten” and not “food.” You would never say “A plate of barely food,” right? 

  • For the rest of the afternoon Gloria and David strolled along the mostly-sandy beach. (INCORRECT)

Why no hyphen is needed: There is no such thing as a “mostly beach,” thus no confusion.

  • Gloria flashed a slightly-sad smile to the group. (INCORRECT)

Why no hyphen is needed: There’s no such thing as a “slightly smile,” thus no confusion.

  • Gorgeous flowers dotted the densely-packed hillside.

Why no hyphen is needed: There’s no such thing as a “densely hillside,” thus no confusion.

Do you see the pattern here? If there’s no ambiguity about what a descriptive word is modifying, then there’s no need for a hyphen. No doubt = no hyphen!

-Maria

Maria Murnane writes bestselling novels about life, love and friendship. Have questions? You can find her at www.mariamurnane.com.

 

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Comments
  • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

    Thanks for this. This is the simplest explanation I've seen. I'll remember it for myself and use it for the clients I serve as well.