Hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity when two descriptive words are next to each other before a noun. (They are also used for compound words such as self-esteem.)
For example, take the following sentence:
The small business owner got a great loan from the bank.
Is the business owner a small person? Or does the person own a small business? Most likely it’s the latter, but without a hyphen it’s unclear, which is why a hyphen is necessary in this case.
The small-business owner got a great loan from the bank. (CORRECT)
The small business owner got a great loan from the bank. (INCORRECT)
Here’s another example:
The hard charging executive took a vacation.
Is the executive hard? Or does the executive charge hard? Most likely it’s the latter, but again without a hyphen it’s unclear, which is why a hyphen is also necessary in this case.
Where I often see hyphens being used incorrectly is when an adverb is next to a descriptive word before a noun. Adverbs (usually words ending in ly) modify only verbs or adjectives and not nouns, so there is no need for a hyphen.
If the above examples have you squinting at your screen in puzzlement, try taking away the descriptive word in each sentence:
Got it? If there’s no ambiguity about what a word is modifying, then there’s no need for a hyphen.
This blog post originally appeared on CreateSpace.com. Reprinted with permission. © 2018 CreateSpace, a DBA of On-Demand Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.