Mild-Mannered Devil © by Sandy Van Doren

"-" is a mild enough punctuation mark when we're reading.  But it's a devil when we want to determine its correct usage.

I'd wager we all know to use a hyphen when splitting a word too long for one line.  We'd also hyphenate "blue-green eyes" or "dress of blue-green" or "a you-can't-kid-me book" or "two-thirds finished.

But do we write
bluish green eyes      or    bluish-green eyes?
life-insurance policy  or   life insurance policy?
badly written story     or   badly-written story?
happy-birthday-card  or   happy birthday card?
eat dirt cheap            or   eat dirt-cheap?

It is grammatically incorrect to hyphenate the first three choices.  Neither example is correct for the fourth line; it should correctly read happy-birthday card. The last line depends on what meaning you want to convey: eating doesn't cost a lot or eating dirt isn't costly.

Sometimes the only help is the dictionary.  Sometimes clarity dictates hyphen usage: farmer's co-op or farmer's coop; re-creation (making anew) instead of recreation (having fun).  Sometimes a hyphen keeps the reader from getting distracted: belllike or bell-like; antiinflammatory or anti-inflammatory.

A hyphen is no longer preferred to set off a prefix or suffix or divide a word with double consonants: redistribute, not re-distribute.  Nor should one separate two different vowels occurring in a word: semiannual, reappear.

Hyphens are always used with some words (half-baked, matter-of-fact) and never with others (high school, life insurance).  Everyday usage can change a hyphenated word to a "closed" one (mailman, sunbathing).

Compound nouns are usually not hyphenated: decision making; dictionary consulting.  If these words are used as adjectives, then hyphens are required: decision-making process, dictionary-consulting writer.  Remember exceptions exist: high school student, life insurance policy.

Compound adjectives occurring before the noun are hyphenated, but not when following it: well-known author, an author well known to readers; a so-called clue, a clue so called by amateurs.

The best advice for using a hyphen is to learn the few "rules" and to judge the phrase's readability on a single read.  If the reader is apt to be confused or misled, hyphenate.  If your meaning is clear, don't use a hyphen.

It's a wise writer who keeps a dictionary handy as well.

(Originally appeared in WARA's The Prairie Rose "Talking Technical" column, March/Aptil 1995)