Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Short Guide to Hyphen Use

Hyphens add an extra spice to general, punctuation-related confusion. Their rules allow exceptions on almost every side, rather than giving hard-and-fast guidance to hapless writers.

While there are exceptions to most of the rules that govern hyphens, you should know the general guidelines. You use them to compound words that have not been accepted as a single word. Thus, mother-in-law, head-to-head, mom-and-pop, and often-requested require hyphens. Except that the last example is hyphenated only when used as an adjective.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. You hyphenate a noun that contains a prepositional phrase, but not if the phrase modifies the noun. “Director of marketing” would not be hyphenated, as “of marketing” explains what the subject directs.

In contrast, a work-at-home dad needs his hyphens. “Work-at-home” modifies “dad” and acts as a single word in this example. You may have difficulty walking that fine line, at first. A little practice will help you decipher whether your phrase acts as a word.

A noun that functions in two or more roles also requires a hyphen between them. A writer-actor-director serves three functions (well or not) in the staging of a play and thus has earned his or her hyphens.

You use a hyphen when attaching a prefix to a proper noun. Anti-American sentiment, post-Reagan era, and quasi-French cuisine all must be hyphenated. Words that begin with ex-, all-, or self- also demand a hyphen. “The all-access pass that her ex-boyfriend left allowed her to act self-assured backstage.”

You also add a hyphen between some words comprised of a single letter and an actual word, such as T-shirt and X-ray. You don't, however, hyphenate I beam or T square. I could find no reason, other than conventional use, for the hyphenation difference between T-shirt and T square.

One more type of word requires hyphens: the compound number. When you write out two-digit numbers or the last two integers of a longer number, you add a hyphen between the words. Thus, I am writing this on the twenty-third day of February.

If you have some examples or other ways in which to use hyphens, please share them. If you have a terrific mnemonic device for remembering or figuring out how and where to use them, for the love of all that is holy, please post them below. Thank you!