Hyphenate for Clarity

Readers have continued to send me their questions about style, diction and usage. Today I'll explain the proper use of hyphens.

Hyphenate for Clarity
Hyphenate Modifying Adjectives
One common use of hyphens is in compound adjectives that precede a noun. Hyphenating compound adjectives before nouns can make your writing clearer. Consider the difference between "high-school students" and "high school students." The former is clear, but the latter could indicate either students in high school or students who smoke weed before class.

I once wrote an article about the fifteenth century. The article was published in Fifteenth-Century Studies. In the first case "fifteenth century" serves as a noun. In the second case it is an adjective modifying "Studies." Another example might be, "He wrote a big-picture summary," which is different from "He sees the big picture."
An exception, however, is when one of the terms is an adverb ending in -ly. One would speak of a "minimally invasive procedure" without inserting a hyphen. The reason: minimally modifies invasive, not procedure.

Another exception to the noun/adjective distinction is that words with "self" are almost always hyphenated, whether nouns (self-reliance, self-esteem) or adjectives (self-aggrandizing). This does not apply, however, when "self" has a suffix (selfless).

But Don't Overdo It
The modifier before a noun can, of course, have more than two elements, as in "He was a larger-than-life figure." But consider a sentence like, "He was a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time player." This just looks clumsy on the page, and one has to ask, how much is too much? In this case, one would be better off saying simply, "He was not yet ready for prime time." 

This inevitably brings to mind the word bi-annual, which is now widely used. The problem is that business people use it variously to mean either twice a year or once every two years and forget that we already have perfectly good words for both of those concepts - semi-annual and biennial. 

Another Exception: Follow Existing Practice 
I once wrote a magazine article on "asset based lending," which I was naturally eager to turn into asset-based lending. Every published source I could find in the industry, however, left out the hyphen. It was not up to me to break new ground, so I left it alone. 

PR guru Kathe Stanton,, has some helpful advice about consistency. "Even well-edited publications differ in their use of hyphens, but it's important to be consistent. If a term is hyphenated in one paragraph, double-check that it doesn't appear without a hyphen two paragraphs down. 
"To maintain consistency - and sanity - all publications and many organizations have a 'house style' for commonly used words and phrases. Even a 'department style' can help reduce the number of judgment calls."

The Language Is Changing
One reason inconsistencies occur is because usage changes over time. Many words that were once hyphenated have now simply been run together. Twenty years ago, for example, we all wrote the words e-mail (my 1992 dictionary even capitalizes it), on-line and decision-making. Now we would normally say email, online, and decisionmaking.

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This discussion of hyphens is by no means exhaustive. I haven't, for instance, mentioned the cases of ex-wife, ninety-three, or second- and third-graders. It should, however, give people in your organization more confidence about their use of hyphens. 

All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at