When to use a hyphen
On April 1, 2019 | 0 Comments | Grammar tips |

Are you using hyphens when you shouldn’t be?

Hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity when two descriptive words are placed next to each other before a noun. (They are also used for compound words such as dead-end.)

For example, take the following sentence:

The small business owner got a great loan from the bank. 

Is the business owner who got a great loan a small person? Or does the person who got a great loan own a small business? Most likely it’s the latter, but without a hyphen it’s unclear, which is why in this case a hyphen is necessary.

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 in this case a hyphen is also necessary.

  • The hard-charging executive took a vacation. (CORRECT)
  • The hard charging executive took a vacation. (INCORRECT)

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.

For example:

  • The highly regarded professor gave a lecture. (CORRECT)
  • The highly-regarded professor gave a lecture. (INCORRECT)
  • The newly hired caterer got straight to work. (CORRECT)
  • The newly-hired caterer got straight to work. (INCORRECT)
  • The recently promoted director took the corner office. (CORRECT)
  • The recently-promoted director took the corner office. (INCORRECT)

If the above examples have you confused, try taking away the descriptive word in each sentence:

  • The highly professor gave a lecture. (MAKES NO SENSE)
  • The newly caterer got straight to work. (MAKES NO SENSE)
  • The recently director took the corner office. (MAKES NO SENSE)

Got it? If there’s no ambiguity about what a word is modifying, then there’s no need for a hyphen.

-Maria

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