Saturday, 30 April 2016

The importance of hyphens

You simply cannot misuse hyphens.
Why? Because the meaning of an entire story can change.
How? Consider this article:

Obviously the article is telling a story about an eighteen-year-old who hopped trains for so many years. Cute story. But go back and read the title again.
I personally didn’t know trains could hop, let alone use a camera.
In case you missed it, the wording of this title implies that the train is eighteen years old and did the hopping. Can you see why that is?

The eighteen-year-old train hopped vs. the eighteen-year-old train-hopped.

Hyphens are primarily used when joining two words together to make a compound word. Without a hyphen, train-hopping is no longer a thing the teenager is doing. It is now a hopping train.
Compound adjectives are the easiest example here. You work a nine-hour day. You go for a half-hour walk. You write a 300-page story. You dress in an old-fashioned style.

One key way to know whether you need a hyphen or not is to ask yourself whether you could put “and” between the two words. If not, you probably need a hyphen because the two words are combining to mean something different from their separate parts. Another way to know you need a hyphen is if the words don’t make sense used separately. For example, a blue-eyed girl needs a hyphen because you cannot say the girl is blue and eyed. But if the girl has big blue eyes, that’s fine, because you can say she has big eyes and blue eyes.

If you go back to the article about the train-hopping, you’ll find in the first sentence, right at the beginning, there is another error within the hyphen category. The “18-years-old” does not require hyphens. You only say 18-year-old when you’re calling the person an 18-year-old, not describing them as 18 years old. It’s “I have blonde hair” vs. “I am a blonde-haired girl”.
One thing they did right with hyphens was using one in “eye-opening”. A hyphen used there is correct.

So hyphens are important where compound adjectives are concerned. But just to complicate things, there is a rule that states a compound adjective that follows its noun, instead of coming before it, doesn’t require a hyphen.
Chris Hemsworth is a well-known actor (the noun comes after, so a hyphen is required).
The actor Chris Hemsworth is well known (the noun comes before, so no hyphen is required).

There are phrases that need to be hyphenated too, like run-of-the-mill. That particular phrase works as an adjective. Without the hyphens it could be interpreted differently. The hyphens make it one thing instead of lots of different things – a combination of several words to create one new meaning – so they’re very important to use in these situations.

In the case of the train, that is not a compound adjective, but rather a kind of verb. This is a very specific example and it gets a bit tricky sometimes. The Chicago Manual of Style has a fantastic table ( which outlines the various compound terms and how to deal with them. I definitely recommend reading through it if you are in doubt.

At the end of the day, if what you’re saying can be interpreted differently without a hyphen, you should probably consider the hyphen. Trains should only hop in strange fiction stories, not in news articles.

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