Why hyphens matter

Some people think hyphens are unnecessary; others overuse them. It’s a divisive topic even among copy editors. But if you think hyphens don’t matter, consider the following examples:

  • People who believe in hate-free speech are quite different from those who hate free speech.
  • You’d likely react differently to a man eating chicken than you would to a man-eating chicken.
  • An anti-animal cruelty charity probably doesn’t love puppies as much as you think (whereas an anti-animal-cruelty charity would).
  • A study of 10 year-old children means it involved 10 1-year-olds, whereas a study of 10-year-old children included kids who are 10 years old.
  • A person who recently bought a 100-year-old house is a new homeowner, but not a new-home owner.

Learning when to use a hyphen can save you from a lot of embarrassment.

Should you use a hyphen?

When used in a compound modifier, hyphens help to clarify the meaning of phrases that can be interpreted multiple ways. The hyphen tells the reader that all of the words in a modifying phrase work together to describe the noun.

In the “man-eating chicken” example, the hyphen indicates that “man” is functioning as part of the adjective rather than as a noun. In a more ordinary example, in the phrase “real-time management,” the hyphen clarifies that the management is being done in real time, rather than the time management being real.

When hyphens are futile

We can omit the hyphen in a compound modifier when the meaning likely would not be misunderstood. For example: ice cream sundae, video game sales, breast cancer cases, health care laws, child care workers.

Per AP style, we also omit hyphens with “-ly” modifiers. For example: recently released study, highly skilled employees, newly discovered planet, critically acclaimed film.

If you’re unsure of whether to use a hyphen, ask yourself if the phrase could have two different meanings depending on whether there’s a hyphen.

 

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