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!

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