This blog was featured on 02/11/2020
Refresher on Hyphens
Written by
Maria Murnane
9 days ago
Written by
Maria Murnane
9 days ago

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


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  • 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.