Energize Your Writing With Active Sentences

An editing pet peeve of mine is reading a sentence that could have been great, but the author settled for good enough. For example:

It was very dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.
There are four types of alcoholics.
It was there that I stayed stretched out and longing for some time.
There were dangerous people milling around Red Square.
It is possible that Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
This was obviously the tastefully decorated living room of a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO.
There will be millions of victims if the premier refuses to take a stand.
There could have been doubt before, but that was gone now.
It was worth the wait to see Slayer’s final show.
There wasn’t enough to prove Gabriel was in imminent danger.
There will be more suffering and death unless someone steps in to fund the program.

Nothing is grammatically wrong, but can you feel the weakness of each sentence? No? Compare it to an improved version.

Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.
I remained stretched out and longing for some time.
Four types of alcoholics exist.
Dangerous people milled about Red Square.
Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
Obviously, a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO lived in the tastefully decorated living room.
If the premier refuses to take a stand, millions of victims may pay the ultimate price.
Any doubt had disappeared.
Slayer’s final show was well-worth the wait.
Gabriel was never in imminent danger.
Suffering and death will continue until someone steps in to fund the program.

See what I mean?

By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, the author robbed the prose of energy.

Also, these beginnings are so vague and nebulous that you risk leaving your readers scratching their heads, doing the mental “huh?”

Expletive construction is fine during your first-draft effort.* Whatever it takes to get ideas out of your head and into the world. But once you type “The End,” engage your search function and look for these bad boys:

[table id=3 /]

When you find one, experiment with the sentence it contains to make a strong string of prose. Sometimes the fix is as easy as deleting the expletive and the relative pronoun that.

It was Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.
Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.

Other times, eliminate the expletive and that before beginning the sentence with the subject.

There are thousands of people across the globe that could launch nuclear war.
Thousands of people across the globe could launch nuclear war.

Often, after performing either fix, you can add intensity to the sentence by pumping up the verb and tightening the prose.

There were more than ten dozen roses in Alexandra’s office.
Over ten dozen roses blanketed Alexandra’s office.

“But, Annie, I just read a NYT bestseller author’s latest novel, and he starts a lot of his sentences like that. Why can’t I?”

He’s earned his writing chops. When you hit the bestseller lists with your books, you can start a lot of your sentences like that, too. Until then, let’s write energetically, shall we?

Write on!

 

*Expletive construction is acceptable in dialogue because most people speak that way.

Easy Ways to Remember Difficult Words

You’re kicking butt, editing your latest piece of writing excellence, when everything comes to a screeching halt. Affect? Effect? Hmm… Affect? Effect? Argh!!!

Instead of stopping your writing flow to jump on the Internet (for the fiftieth time) to look up which one it is, here’s an easy way to remember: RAVEN: Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun

Affect is an action verb that means to influence something. Effect is usually a noun that means something that was influenced. (It can also be used as a verb meaning to bring about, but that usage is rare.)

The dampness of the moors affected Cameron’s health.
The damaging effect of Kartooth’s close orbit around the sun meant death to all.

 

Here are a few more…

Farther vs. Further… Farther refers to physical distance. Further designates metaphorical or figurative distance.

“I can’t walk any farther in these heels!” Arianna groaned.
Without further proof, the DA had to dismiss the case.

Easy way to remember?  Far (physical distance) is in Farther.

 

Lay vs. Lie… Lay refers to someone or something being acted upon, such as being moved or being put down, by someone or something. Lie is used when someone or something is doing something.

[table id=2 /]

“Just lay the money on the end table and shove off, okay?”
“The doctor recommended I lie down after the procedure.”

Easy ways to remember?  If the verb place or put can be used in the sentence, use lay. For lie? “Rec-lie-n.”

 

Fewer vs. Less… Fewer is for items that can be counted—dresses, ideas, Reese’s Pieces. Less is for stuff that can’t be counted—love, time, furniture.

Fewer than fifty people voted against Jose.
Ann would settle for nothing less than unconditional love.

Easy ways to remember?  If you can make a plural of the item—dress vs. dresses—it’s countable. Use fewer. If not, use less.

 

Than vs. Then… Than is a conjunction used for comparison. Then is an adverb used for time.

Myra was lovelier today than yesterday.
First comes marriage, then comes seduction.

Easy way to remember? Comparisons are made using Than. Than and comparison both have the letter “a” in them. Then often shows time. Then and time both have the letter “e” in them.

 

Beside vs. Besides… Beside refers to being next to someone or something. Besides means in addition to or apart from. Also, as well or furthermore.

He rested beside the stream before heading out again.
“Who was at the party besides you and Frank,” Ann demanded.
Kent had more work to do. Besides, he wasn’t in the mood to party anyway.

Easy way to remember? If something is near the bed, it’s be[d]side it. (Remove the “d” and you have beside.)

 

Born vs. Borne… Born and borne are past tense forms of the verb to bear. Use born when referring to someone or something entering the world or as an activity. Use borne in every other instance.

Margaret was born in the back seat of their Chevy.
Born deaf, Alaina possessed astonishing musical talents.
Borne aloft by the winds, the balloon traveled for ten miles.

Easy way to remember? Babies and ideas enter the word small, and born is smaller than borne. Get it?

 

Which vs. That vs. Who… Which refers to things. That may refer to either things or people. Who refers to people but can be used for animals.

Kevin never watches movies which have subtitles.
The Outrageous Debutante is the book that he recommended.
Bailey, who always wants to play catch, brought Connie the ball.

Easy way to remember? If you can eliminate the word which and not change the sentence, use which (or leave it out). If throwing which out changes the meaning, use that instead. Also, use who when writing about people and that when writing about things.

 

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure… Assure is done to a person, group of people, or animal to remove doubt or anxiety. Ensure is done to guarantee an event or condition. Insure can be done to a person or thing but is reserved for limiting financial liability.

Thomas assured Paulina that he still loved her.
To ensure she’d be ready on time, Georgette did her makeup an hour earlier.
Fabio had no idea if he was insured against vampire damage.

Easy way to remember? Assure is for things that are alive. (Both begin with an a.)  Ensure and guarantee both end in e.

 

Irregardless vs. Regardless… People believe irregardless means regardless, but it doesn’t. In fact, irregardless isn’t a word. Don’t use it. Use regardless.

Regardless of her feelings toward him, Corrine knew she had to end the relationship.

Easy way to remember? Irregardless isn’t a word. Simple, eh?

 

Write on!

Into? In To? Onto? On To? Argh!

Prepositions like into, in to, onto, and on to can drive writers crazy. Don’t worry. Correct usage is easy if you remember a few simple things.

Into, in to, onto, and on to are prepositions of direction, answering the question “where.” But not always.

 

Into starts a prepositional phrase that shows direction, movement, position, or transformation from one thing into another.

Cinderella stepped into her carriage.

Movement is to the interior of the carriage.

Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin after midnight.

The carriage transformed.

The remodeling project turned into a big mess.
Glynnis threw diced tomatoes into the salad.
Snow lingers well into June in the mountains.

Snow lingers how long? Well into June.

She went into business with her friend.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.

Jerry ran into an old friend at the auction.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.)

Often, into is interchangeable with in.

Put the old magazines in/intothe recycle bin.
The dog jumped in/into the pool.

Sometimes, into and in are not interchangeable. While in shows direction, it does not always mean movement from one thing to another as into does.

Is the dog still swimming in the pool?
Why was there more champagne in Lynette’s glass?

 

In + To act as a phrase. In is an adverb and to is a preposition. In is part of a phrasal verb, i.e., you need an adverb to complete the verb’s meaning.

Rachel dived in to rescue the struggling child.

Context suggests Rachel dived into water.

Rachel dived into the water to rescue the struggling child.
He walked in to the sound of applause.

Context suggests that he walked into a location.

He walked into the sound of applause.

 

Everyone at work chipped in to the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

But not

Everyone at work chipped into the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

 

Unsure whether to use in to or into? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

 

As a preposition, onto shows moving or placing “on top of.” Use it if you can add the word up before onto.

Dad climbed (up) onto the roof to retrieve the kitten.
Rodney shoved blame (up) his brother for not fixing the lawnmower.

 

Onto and the preposition on are often interchangeable.

Harry stepped on/onto the grass.
Crumbs fell on/onto the new carpet.

 

Sometimes, onto and on are not interchangeable because on means more than “on top of.”

She wrote on the book.

Meaning “in contact with,” but not

She wrote onto the book.

Meaning “wait”.

 

Hold on!

Meaning “wait”.

 

Onto and on to are not interchangeable.

She tossed the book onto (on) the desk.

But not

She tossed the book on to the desk.

 

The rain fell onto (on) the parched earth.

But not

The rain fell on to the parched earth.

 

The restaurant adds the tip onto the bill.

But not

The restaurant adds the tip on to the bill.

 

On + to act as a phrase. On is an adverb and to is a preposition. On is part of a phrasal verb. On to is casual in usage.

Pass the information about tax law changes on to your clients.

Or

Pass the information about the tax law changes to your clients.

 

We moved on to other matters.

But not

We moved onto other matters.

 

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving on to the house for dinner.

But not

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving onto the house for dinner.

Better

We’re having cocktails in the garden, and then we’ll have dinner in the house.

 

Sometimes context determines whether you should use onto or on to.

We drove onto the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they got on the highway.

We drove on to the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they drove until arriving at the highway. Then they did a different thing, e.g., pulled over for a rest stop, ate a meal, or checked the map and discovered they lost.

Unsure whether to use onto or on to? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

Easy peasy… lemon squeezy…

Write on!

5 Ways to Kill A Sentence

“Great story, but I had a hard time reading it.” “Incredible concept, but your writing didn’t jump off the page.” “A compelling plot, but the style throughout was flat.” But… but… but…

Tired of hearing this about your novel? Maybe you’re guilty of a sentence crime.

It happens every day in some part of the world, a poor, defenseless sentence becomes the unwilling victim of a homicide. Hit and run. Voluntary manslaughter. Murder.

The saddest thing? Often times the killer is unaware a crime has been committed and continues about his or her fiction writing, unable to stop committing the crime again, again, and again.

Here are the top five:

Write a Weak Sentence

A writer afraid to commit to the writing, unwilling to take a risk with his/her thoughts and prose, kills a sentence by decorating a wimpy verb. Instead of a stronger one to suit the character’s intended action, the killer simply places an intensifier like very, so, suddenly, or extremely in front of the wimpy verb. The result? A weaken sentence impact. Life is literally sucked from the prose.

Major Green opened the door very fast.
vs.
Major Green flung open the door.

 

Write a Boring Sentence

A writer who writes with only personal pleasure in mind kills the sentence by downplaying action. Instead of grabbing hold of the prose and committing to strong, aggressive writing, the killer’s passive approach bleeds onto the page as passive voice. The result? An awkward, wordy, and generally vague sentence.

Tragically, hundreds of lives were lost when the mountain was hit by the plane.
vs.
Tragically, hundreds of people died when the plane slammed into the mountain.

 

Write a Formal Sentence

A writer who tries to impress everyone with intellect and/or who hopes to intrigue a reader so much it sweeps him/her into the story kills a sentence by being a classic-literature wannabe. Instead of trusting his/her personal writing style and voice, the killer tries channeling—and fails miserably—classic literature giants. The result? A sentence that’s comical (probably not the writer’s intention). (Thanks to our buddy at www.necronomi.com for this example.)

Her pansy cheeks blushed a deeper shade of rose as I spoke to her, and she cast down her violet eyes and covered her soft, petal-pink lips with a slender, lily-like hand—she was a natural wallflower, after all, and green at the art of flirtation.
vs.
Cheeks blushed, she lowered violet eyes and covered tender lips with her delicate hand. She was a beautiful wallflower, unskilled in flirtation.

 

Write an Overweight Sentence

A writer who rushes thoughts and/or beats around the bush because he/she is unsure where the story needs to go kills a sentence by creating a long, boring string of words. Instead of writing so readers can experience a scene emotionally, the killer uses long, flat descriptions. The result? A sentence that readers often skip because it looks too much like a grocery list.

Paul wore a green and red plaid threadbare shirt with a missing button at the cuff and a pair of frayed black jeans torn below the knee.
vs.
Paul wore Goodwill rejects.

(This could be the first time Paul shows up in the novel. That’s when most grocery-list descriptions occur.)
 

Write an Unclear Sentence

A writer indifferent to the reader and lack passion for his/her story and/or words kills a sentence by forgetting transitions. Instead of keeping the reader moving from one idea to the next, the killer drones on, assuming the reader will figure it out. The result? A sentence that leaves the reader clueless regarding time and plot flow. (This occurs often in a synopsis, back-cover copy, and/or book blurb.)

Gerald discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her. He devises a strategy to overcome her opposition. Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally and romantically. Ramona ups the ante. She publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death. He uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
vs.
Gerald soon discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her in hopes of devising a strategy to overcome her opposition. Just when Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally as well as romantically, Ramona ups the ante and publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death and soon uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

Stop the cycle of violence. Each and every sentence deserves to live to tell a tale. Only you can prevent this senseless crime. Won’t you… please?

Write on!

Grammar No-No’s That Aren’t (Necessarily…)

Attention Grammar Nazis, Ninjas, and Police. The following article may be too much for your purist hearts.
Show of hands… how many of you out there cringe when you see a sentence like this:

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

Or one like this:

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

Or this:

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Or, finally, this:

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Okay, my hands are up for all four.

So, what puts my grammar panties in a wad? Sentences that break grammar rules drilled into my head by my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Bruno. Here’s the crazy thing: Some of those rules were never rules in the first place, and others have changed over the years as the English language has changed.

No-No #1 That Isn’t… Split Infinitives

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

For the record, no authoritative grammar and usage text exists that forbids split infinitives. However, most readers (especially those over 40 years old) stumble over split infinitives because they were taught such constructions are a grammar no-no. If your goal is to ensure your reader stays focuses on your story and not your writing, we suggest you fix the split.

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to open the safe immediately.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid a split infinitive, DON’T.

Awkward: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided brazenly to raid the plane.
Better: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided to brazenly raid the plain.

 

No-No #2 That Isn’t… Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?” The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.” The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you big jerk?”

Blame crazy, annoying Romans for this one. High-school Latin taught us a preposition cannot come after its target word. Somehow, grammarians before us migrated the rule into the English language and gave us all something to fight about for centuries.

If your goal as a fiction writer is to write cleanly and seamlessly and avoid pulling your reader out of the story, consider rewriting the sentence.

Dominick was certain he’d not left the bar with this bimbo.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, DON’T.

Awkward: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide with whom the contestants will meet.
Better: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide whom the contestants will be allowed to meet with.

 

No-No #3 That Isn’t… Starting A Sentence With However, Hopefully, or Because

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Where this rule came from no one seems to know, but most writers cite Struck and White’s The Elements of Style. However, Masters William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White only caution writers not to start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless.

However is a conjunctive adverb. Without a comma, it means in whatever manner or to what extent. With a comma, it means nevertheless.

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.
Pollyanna couldn’t get her mind off Darnell. However, she wasn’t trying hard enough.

What about hopefully or because? Hopefully is an adverb meaning it is hoped (that). Without a comma, it means a moderate amount of hope. With a comma, it means an extreme amount of hope.

Hopefully CatyAnn’s husband would arrive soon.
Hopefully, CatyAnn’s husband was alive.

Because is a subordinating conjunction meaning for the reason that or since. It’s okay as a sentence starter as long as you include the main clause later in the sentence.

Because no one believed Steve was gone, no one reported him missing.

What about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so? No problem here as long as you make sure to include the main clause the word refers to either in the preceding sentence or later in the same sentence.

Incorrect: And smart, too.
Correct: She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

Simply follow with a comma? No, unless there’s an aside that needs one.

Incorrect: And she loved her job.
Correct: And, despite the extra work, she loved her job.

 

Incorrect: Yet, Inez stripped down and dove in anyway.
Correct: Tuesday night was frigid, with the wind whipping off the surf. Yet, Inez stripped down and dove into the water anyway.

 

No-No #4 That Isn’t… Passive Voice

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong. I repeat: passive voice is not grammatically wrong. However, it is grammatically boring. Why? Because the subject of a passive sentence is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act upon it. It’s not making things happen. It’s passive. Boring.

Commercial fiction editors tell us they view passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

If you want your reader to stay interested in your story, stay involved in what your character is going through, rewrite the sentence.

Memories of the accident tormented Brady.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid passive voice, DON’T.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Passive voice, but much more interesting as emphasis is on the body receiving the action. The writer’s goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. The reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy.

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active voice, but a dead sentence (pun intended).

For an in-depth look at passive voice, click here.

 

But What About Dialog?

Misuse of grammar rules (or supposed grammar rules) is perfectly acceptable in dialog if it fits your character’s personality and background. If. It. Fits. Your. Character. Got it?

Write on!

Right Word = Right Image = Right Emotion

You wrote the book of your heart, the novel that you dreamed about writing since you were ten. You know the one. The manuscript that poured out of your soul onto the page like it was dictated by God. Your family and your critique partners said it was the best book they ever read. You even placed in a few contests. So, you published that baby knowing that once the world fell in love with it, too, Oprah would select your novel for her reading club.

Except…

Reader reviews say the characters are dull and unlikeable, the story lacks depth and dramatic tension, and the writing fails to jump off the page and engage the reader.

So, babe, how do you feel? Angry? Irritated? Enraged? Incensed? Annoyed? Galled? Pissed? Infuriated? Vexed?

Maybe you’re disappointed? Baffled? Failed? Dumbfounded? Frustrated? Disillusioned? Puzzled? Thwarted?

Perhaps you’re distraught? Heartbroken? Anguished? Sad? Crushed? Despondent? Miserable? Depressed?

Actually, you could be any one (or more) of those. However, if you’re telling someone this story in an email or on a rant site on the Internet, your reader won’t comprehend exactly how you feel unless you pick the right words to convey the right image to invoke the right emotion.

This takes more than a spin through a thesaurus. It takes understanding that words may have similar meanings and yet different intensities.

Words have shades of meaning.

Think about the first set of emotions: irritated, annoyed, galled, vexed, incensed, pissed, infuriated, and enraged. They’re all synonyms for angry but–more importantly–they’re shades of angry. Think about it. Although we all have the basic feelings of happiness, anger, sadness, or fear, we actually feel different mixtures of these emotions at one time or another.

If you’re upset about reader reviews, saying you’re simply angry doesn’t tell the whole story, does it?

Angered by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

A basic statement of fact, but the reader has no real idea how Annie feels.

Irritated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is not her first bad review, and she’s getting a bit discouraged.

Annoyed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

This is her twelfth bad review, and she’s wondering what the problem is.

Galled by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if should reply to one of the readers and point out two grammar errors in his comments.

Vexed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should ask Amazon to delete a few of those nasty reviews.

Incensed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She’s wondering if she should troll Facebook to find each nasty reviewer.

Pissed by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She names the nasty readers on her Facebook page.

Infuriated by the review, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually creates a Facebook page called “Writers that Hate Stupid Readers.”

Enraged by the rejection, Annie vowed to show those “stupid readers” who they were dealing with.

She actually sends nasty emails to all less-than-five-star reviewers.

Think Paint Chips

One way to grasp shades of meaning is to think about the cards paint manufacturers provide that show the range of related paint colors.

Consider the next set of emotions we talked about earlier: baffled, failed, dumbfounded, frustrated, disillusioned, puzzled, and thwarted. These synonyms describe disappointed. Let’s put them in order from the weakest to the strongest, i.e., their shades of meaning:

failed

thwarted

frustrated

puzzled

disillusioned

dumbfounded

baffled

Enough with emotions. What about another noun, like problem? Synonyms for problem include difficulty, trouble, dilemma, obstacle, quandary, uncertainty, and issue. Let’s order them from weakest to strongest:

difficulty

uncertainty

dilemma

quandary

trouble

obstacle

issue

Okay, let’s try an action, like pretend. Synonyms for pretend include fool, feign, dupe, bluff, masquerade, deceive, and simulate. Ready to sort weakest to strongest? Go!

fool

bluff

dupe

feign

masquerade

simulate

deceive

Organize the words based on your background and experience.

This exercise helps you understand and appreciate how various shades of words can help you choose the right one for the right image to convey the right fiction picture to your reader.

Note to historical writers: You have the added challenge of using words that are time-period appropriate but not so obscure your reader gets confused and lost.

Every word matters. 

Every word carries a measure of meaning. Shades of meaning are subtle differences that can dramatically change how your reader perceives your writing and how your story is received.

Write on!

One-Minute Grammar… Hyphenation Between Words

Poor Mr. Hyphen. He gets no respect. Considering he can combine the power of two words (sometimes three) and force them to work together to describe a noun—all in one simple swoop—Mr. Hyphen is one mighty mark.

Andrew planned to build a new company headquarters with fifty stories.
Andrew’s plans called for a new fifty-story company headquarters.

Verb or noun phrases are hyphenated when they serve as compound adjectives, i.e., work together to describe nouns. If they show up somewhere else in a sentence, use no hyphen.

Ken quit school in the fifth grade.
Ken’s fifth-grade education limited his ability to find work.

 

Marjorie’s son was eighteen years old.
Marjorie’s eighteen-year-old son planned to join the Air Force after graduation.

 

“Can you believe it?” Gina said. “That pain in the ass sold my car! That move is going to make my life difficult.”
“He sold my car,” Gina said. “Talk about your pain-in-the-ass, make-my-life-difficult moves.”

However, be on the lookout for when not using a hyphen could cause confusion.

CJ saw a man eating tiger today.
CJ saw a man-eating tiger today.

 

The president spoke to small business men.
The president spoke to small-business men.

If all words of the compound adjective are nouns, don’t hyphenate.

Is that the ice cream truck I hear coming down the street?
She spent the evening watching Saturday Night Fever.

If the first word is an adverb ending in –ly, don’t hyphenate.

Katie nodded at the barely living man that lay crumpled against the wall.
What an incredibly long movie!

If the first word is a comparative or superlative adjective, don’t hyphenate.

Rainbow Falls was the more dangerous trail of the two available.
Vlad is not the most popular leader in the country.

If the last element of the compound adjective is just a letter, don’t hyphenate.

Trish only cooked with Grade A eggs.
People with type B personalities are usually calm and relaxed.

Here are some other handy, dandy hyphen helps:

• Use a hyphen to ensure a reader knows exactly what word you’re trying to convey.

Archie needed to re-press his jeans.
Archie needed to repress his memories.

• Use a hyphen with compound numbers or when a fraction is used as an adjective. If used as a noun, don’t hyphenate.

Cassandra’s gas tank was two-thirds full.
Two thirds of the movie was over by the time they arrived at the theater.

• Use a hyphen when joining a prefix to a word that must be capitalized.

Carl’s anti-American leanings caused friction with the family.
“I found pro-Castro propaganda hidden in the false bottom of a desk drawer,” Juan said.

Write on!