Use of hyphens

This week we discuss hyphen usage. Hyphens are used to link words and parts of words, but the rules regarding their use are as complicated as the U.S. Tax Code. So the Scribe advises that you check Webster’s Third New International Dictionary when presented with a super-tricky hyphen situation. But with that caveat, here are some general rules.

Generally, hyphens should be used in the following situations:

  • To join a prefix to a capitalized word or a number (e.g., un-American; pre-2001).
  • To join a prefix to a main word when the second element consists of two or more words (e.g., non-work-related injury).
  • With adjective phrases containing numerals or with compound modifiers that appear before the word modified (e.g., third-party beneficiary; seven-foot-tall tree; case-by-case basis; five-page reply; good-faith effort).

On the other hand, hyphens should not be used in these situations:

  • With adjective forms of compound modifiers in which the first word is an adverb ending in “ly” (e.g., the hotly contested Senate race; the glacially slow base-runner).
  • With compound adjectives that appear after a verb (e.g., Lee’s initial success at Gettysburg was short lived).
  • With percentages used as an adjective (e.g., 30 percent success; one percent real fruit juice).

Be aware, however, that frequently used word combinations may become just one word—sometimes passing through a hyphenated-word stage (e.g., antitrust; database). Again, it is best to check the dictionary if you just aren’t sure if a word should be hyphenated.

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