Posted: May 2nd, 2014, 10:53 am   By: brittany.corners

“Marcie Dahlgren-Frost. Dahlgren is my maiden name, Frost is my married name. I’m single again, but I never bothered to remove the Frost. And I get compliments on the hyphen.”—C’mon, who doesn’t love “Uncle Buck”?

This week’s topic is how to use hyphens.

Contrary to popular belief, hyphens aren’t just for the last names of people who went to a liberal arts college (well … and Pocket Hercules). These dashing punctuation marks serve a very useful function: They join words together to form combined meanings. Despite its glorious utility, the hyphen also brings along some complicated rules for usage. To improve our comprehension of this constructive connector, let’s review some of the most common uses of the hyphen.

1) Compound modifiers

A compound modifier is comprised of two or more words that express a single concept to modify a noun. When such a modifier comes before the noun, use a hyphen to connect all the words within the compound except the adverb very and any adverbs that end with -ly. If the compound modifier comes after the noun, usually no hyphen is needed.

  • Billy eats chocolate-covered boogers.
  • He swears the best boogers are chocolate covered.

2) Ambiguity

A hyphen can clear up awkward letter combinations or ambiguity that might occur in its absence. This function can override previous rule: If a compound modifier comes after the noun and a hyphen can clear up ambiguity, then put the hyphen in.

  • A pre-emptive snack [instead of preemptive]
  • The police dislike criminals who are both hungry and quick-thinking.

3) Fractions and compound numbers

4) Suspensive hyphenation

This is easier than it sounds: When you have more than one compound modifier, and each shares a common element, use hyphens in each modifier.