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Punctuation Pointers: Hyphens

Last time on Punctuation Pointers, we covered the three dashes: the em dash, en dash, and hyphen. This time we’re diving into a few of the functions the hyphen serves. Hyphens are the shortest dash, and its main function is to provide clarity in writing.

Rule 1: Compound adjectives

Hyphens can combine two words to create a compound adjective. For example: “The design is state-of-the-art.” Hyphens usually aren’t needed if the compound adjective is preceding a noun, though they can be added if the author feels it adds clarity. For example: “The off-campus apartment.”

Rule 2: Use hyphens to add clarity

Writers definitely want to hyphenate compound adjectives if it is not an already well-known adjective or you are making up your own. For example: “I changed my diet and became a no-meater.” Without the hyphen, “no-meater” would not make sense. When in doubt, if it adds clarity to a confusing sentence, go with a hyphen. For example, the sentence “She has a concealed weapons permit” is confusing without a permit. Was the weapons permit concealed or did she have a permit for concealed weapons? Saying “She has a concealed-weapons permit” is much clearer.

Rule 3: Do not use hyphens with adverbs ending in ly

A common mistake with hyphens is using them when adverbs ending in ly. (Remember, an adverb describes a verb.) For example: “A very-elegant watch” and “The finely-tuned watch” are incorrect because “very” and “finely” are adverbs ending in ly. However, you can use hyphens with other words that are not adverbs ending in ly. For example: “A family-owned restaurant” or “A friendly-looking dog” are correct because “family” and “friendly” are not adverbs.

Rule 4: Hyphens with ages

Hyphens are often used in describing ages. For example: “We have a two-year-old child.” The hyphen connects two-year-old into one adjective describing the child. However, you do not need a hyphen when saying: “The child is two years old” because “two years old” does not need to be combined to describe “child.”

There are other more ambiguous rules regarding hyphens you can learn more about from, which is the source for this blog post. Find out more here.

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