Hyphens create compound words and break words into syllables. Unlike the dash, which pushes words and phrases apart, slowing a sentence, the hyphen speeds up the message by joining items into a single word.
- An Adjective Modifying an Adjective Requires a Hyphen.
Two adjectives can independently modify one noun, but a hyphen is needed to group adjectives so they collectively modify the noun. Test the need for a hyphen by eliminating the second adjective. If the sentence is still true, then the words independently modify the noun. No hyphen is needed.
- Four years old Four-year-old Johnny could recite the alphabet forward and backward.
- The city council approved a public housing public-housing project. (Without the hyphen, the city approved a housing product open to public scrutiny.)
- The orange juice orange-juice buyer negotiated a below market below-market price. (Without the hyphen, the juice buyer is orange.)
- A shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep to save the one that is lost. (Numbers and fractions, such as three-fourths get a hyphen.)
- Use Hyphens to Join Compound Modifiers.
When you want a modifying phase to function as a single-word modifier, use hyphens or quotation marks to group the words.
- Patrice was a throw-caution-to-the-wind entrepreneur.
- William preached a fire-and-brimstone message last Sunday.
- The company uses both full- and part-time employees. (When the last word of multiple compound modifiers is the same, you have the option to include the last word on only the last modifier, but keep the hyphen).
- The Happy Hippos class is for three three- and four-year-old children.
- Beware Computer-Generated Hyphens.
For manuscripts submitted to editors and agents, don’t justify the margins and don’t hyphenate. In preparing print-ready copy for self-publishing, you do need to justify the margins. When proofing, watch for hyphenation that could be misleading. For example: re-pair wrapped around the end of a line could be understood as “repair again” or re-sign could mean “sign for a second time”?