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Rules of English Grammar on Adjectives & Hyphenation

by M.T. Wroblewski

Just when you thought the rules of English were confusing enough, you’ve stumbled upon adjectives and hyphenation. In general, compound adjectives are hyphenated, but not always. To some extent, you have no choice but to simply memorize (or look up) when a hyphen is necessary. But if you’re unsure, remember a guiding principle: All forms of punctuation should make words easier to read. So if you’re in doubt, it’s better to use a hyphen than leave it out.

Insert a hyphen when you’re spelling out compound numbers or those under 10, such as “an 8-year-old girl,” or fractions, such as “one-third full.” If you’re questioning this rule, consider how confusing a sentence would be without the benefit of the hyphens to create a “bridge” between the key words.

Place a hyphen between two words that act as a single modifier before a noun -- probably the most common occurrence of hyphens and adjectives. In this case, you would write about a “low-budget film,” “chocolate-covered pretzels” and “soda-splattered shoes.”

Use a hyphen after compound words that begin with “all,” “anti,” “better,” “best,” “ex,” ”high,” little,” “lesser,” “long,” “low,” “mid,” “pro,” “self” and “well” and precede a noun. So you would write about a ‘’little-known theater,” a “long-term plan” and a “well-placed source.” In reality, a reader would probably understand a reference to “anti gun legislation,” but a hyphen between “anti” and “gun” brings the words together and makes them flow easier. Remember this as you debate whether a hyphen is appropriate.

Link phrasal adjectives with hyphens to ease communication, even if there are two or more words in the phrase. For example, you should refer to a “do-or-die moment,” a “fight-or-flight instinct” and a “push-it-to-the-brink tendency.” Hyphens can be particularly helpful in humorous prose, when you want a reader to rush along to “meet” a noun, as in: “You could say that he was one of those I-don’t-know-what-I-want-so-I-want-everything-I-see guys.”

Tips

  • Like many people, you may wonder why compound words that were once hyphenated are no longer. The easy answer is that over time, people grow accustomed to seeing words together, making the reliance on the hyphen no longer necessary. Such is the case with compound words such as “longtime,” which is generally considered to be one word, without a hyphen. This said, “house” style trumps the rules. So if your workplace or school prefers the use of “long-time student,” you should oblige.
  • Word that end in “ly” do not require a hyphen, even when they form an adjective, such as “carelessly written paper” and “hastily edited article.”

Resources

  • The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999.
  • The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers; Maxine Hairston and John Ruszkiewicz; 1991.

About the Author

With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.

Photo Credits

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