Understanding complex adjectives and when to hyphenate them sometimes proves a little confusing. The AP style of writing and the CrowdSource style guide provide pretty straightforward rules and guidelines on hyphenating complex adjectives. However, even with these guidelines, hyphenation still remains somewhat subjective when you are writing and editing. Sometimes it is clear when you should apply the rules; sometimes it is not.
Before plunging into the hard and fast rules listed below for guidance, make sure you understand what an adjective does. An adjective is a modifier that describes and modifies the word to which it refers. With that in mind, follow these guidelines to tackle hyphenation, and end your frustration when determining whether a hyphen is necessary.
Properly placing hyphens conveys the meaning in your writing. Use a hyphen if the meaning is changed when it is omitted or if the term expresses a single thought. Consider the following:
Example One: Two carat diamond rings make a lovely gift for the special woman in your life.
Example Two: Two-carat diamond rings make a lovely gift for the special woman in your life.
Without the hyphen, the message conveyed is two rings consisting of one carat each are a lovely gift. With the hyphen, the message conveyed is that a single, two-carat diamond ring is a lovely gift.
Example: Briefcases are an excellent choice for on-the-go professionals.
In the above sentence, “on the go” expresses a single thought where all the words modify the word professionals. Therefore, the hyphens are necessary.
It is important to understand that complex adjectives are hyphenated only when they directly PRECEDE the noun they modify. When the complex adjective appears after the noun, the meaning is clearer, making a hyphen unnecessary. Consider the following:
Example One: High-quality products are offered in this collection.
Example Two: Products of high quality are offered in this collection.
Example Three: High quality and durable products are offered in this collection.
When a complex adjective contains an adverb that ends in “ly,” the hyphen is omitted. This is true regardless of where the adjective falls in the sentence, even when it directly precedes the noun it modifies. Consider the following:
Example One: Beautifully designed products in a variety of colors are available.
Example Two: Luxuriously soft blankets are great for your baby.
Example Three: Highly effective bulbs work great in most lamps.
Words that contain prefixes and suffixes are usually written as one word. There are exceptions, though. If you are unsure, you can easily use dictionary.com or a similar site to verify the correct spelling.
Examples: lightweight, multicolored, multifaceted, multiphase, aftereffect
There are other instances where hyphens are necessary, but they are not as common as the rules outlined here. For a complete understanding of hyphenation, use the internet to find a solid AP-style-guide reference, or pick up a book from your local library. Hopefully, following the rules outlined above eliminates your frustration when you find yourself struggling over hyphenation. Happy hyphenating!