I had three English teachers in High School. One used to call the class retards. One was a decent teacher. The other one hated me because reasons. I’m sure they’d all be pleasantly surprised to know I actually did pay some attention in their classes and picked up quite a few tricks from them. Yes, even from the guy that called us retards. And, no, I’m not kidding about that; he really called us retards on a pretty regular basis.
One of the things that didn’t get covered, though, was dealing with hyphens. It’s possible they all thought it was too advanced a concept, or it’s possible hyphens just weren’t a thing in the mid 80s, but not one of my teachers covered hyphens. We covered the hell out of commas, though.
So, imagine my surprise when I get a book back from a proof-reader and there are all these damned hyphens conjoining things like some kind of grammatical Dr. Moreau. It wasn’t sufficient to say two year old; it had to be two-year-old.
The hyphens had quietly taken over while I wasn’t watching.
Fortunately, hyphens are pretty easy to work with and a little research on the Internet cleared it all up. Sure, there are a lot of rules — this is English, after all — but they’re mostly easy-to-understand rules.
Think back to the idea of nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and all that other stuff you thought you’d never have to worry about again. Nouns are things, verbs are actions. Adjectives describe nouns: awesome, sexy dude or great writer. Adverbs describe verbs: wrote amazingly or punched quickly. Pretty easy, right? Now, look back at that participle phrase post I did a while back and realize you can use multiple words to act as an adjective.
Hyphens allow us to do similar things with other word phrases. Hyphens are like the kids in High School that always seemed popular; they’re joiners. Take that phrase “two year old” from a few paragraphs back. At its face, if you read two year old, you’d probably have a pretty good idea of what someone was writing about, but two-year-old gives us a better visual cue that those words are about a singular thing. But what about “this joint has little town charm”? If I wanted to describe the charm as related to little towns, the phrase could be misconstrued as the joint having a small amount of charm. So, “this joint has little-town charm” would be better.
It’s all about clarity. Remember the cardinal rule: never confuse the reader.
But wait, there’s more!
According to the American Psychological Association, those fun folks that gave us the APA Style Manual, there are five general principles that guide hyphen usage.
- If a compound adjective can be misread, use a hyphen
- If a temporary compound is used as an adjective before a noun, and the compound can be misread or expresses a single thought, use a hyphen
- Most compound adjective hyphen rules only apply when the adjective precedes the modified term
- Write most words with prefixes and suffixes as one word
- When two or more compound modifiers have a common base, this base is sometimes removed for all but the last modifier. The hyphens, however, are retained.
The first two points have already been covered, but three through five aren’t complicated. Three is an interesting case and it goes further to explore how hyphens are used to reduce potential confusion. Before the modified word, I use a hyphenated compound phrase: I have a ten-year-old son. After the modified word, though, I don’t have to hyphenate: My son is ten years old. The reason has to do with implied clarity in the sentence structure; notably it becomes more obvious what was being modified when the phrase comes later in the sentence.
Four is pretty straightforward: aftereffect and extracurricular are already words, use them. Counter-terrorism is often spelled counterterrorism these days. Since these are already accepted words, there’s no need to hyphenate two words together, although it can sometimes be done.
Five is the oddball and it speaks to my programming nature. In programming, it’s not uncommon to declare multiple variables in a compound form not altogether different from dealing with multiple hyphenated words. Long- and short-term memory is more acceptable than long-term and short-term memory or long and short-term memory. Since we’re discussing two types of memory (long and short) the hyphenated words share the same base. As a result, it’s acceptable to omit the base for the first example (but keep the hyphen) and only report the base for the last example. First-, second-, and third-grade classes will be late today.
In the final analysis, using a hyphen can be a matter of choice. As long as that choice is to make things clearer to the reader. In a way, hyphenation is a lot like the Oxford comma in the way it reduces ambiguity for the reader. Proper hyphenation can mean the difference between working twenty four hour shifts, twenty four-hour shifts, twenty-four hour shifts, or twenty-four-hour shifts.
Got any hyphen tips of your own? Leave ’em in the comments.