Understanding the Ever-Mysterious Hyphen

Ah, the hyphen. As one of the world’s most ambiguous bits of punctuation, the hyphen has become the source of confusion, despair, and bone-rattling terror for writers around the world. But the mystery of the hyphen is far from impenetrable – and by understanding why we use this little dash, you’ll get a much better sense of how to use it.

The Basics of the Hyphen

Let’s start with the core function of hyphens: The hyphen clarifies modifiers.

Stepping back for a moment, let’s examine what I mean by “modifiers.” In any given sentence you will have (at a minimum) a subject and a verb. For example: Bob vomited. And then we have our “object” possibility, such as: Bob vomited on Jill. You can also attach a setting, cause, and other details. For example: Bob vomited on Jill when asked to explain the hyphen. And finally, we can attach modifiers to any part of this sentence using adjectives or adverbs, such as with: Bob violently vomited on poor Jill when asked to explain the damned hyphen.

But what happens when we have multiple words modifying the same phrase, or multi-word modifiers? Take, for example, this sentence:

The pale red headed stepchild sat on the high quality rug.

Now, due to our familiarity with some of these phrases (and we’ll talk about that more in a second), we’re likely to divide up the sentence like this:

The pale red-headed stepchild sat on the high-quality rug.

In other words, the step-child, who was red-headed and pale, sat on a rug that was high in quality. But that’s not the only possible interpretation. For example, we could divide the sentence like this:

The pale-red-headed step-child sat on the high-quality rug.

In this case, pale is modifying the color of the hair, not the child. Or we could do this:

The pale-red headed stepchild sat on the high quality rug.

Perhaps the pale-red headed stepchild, as a car would head east? Further, we’ve really mussed up our rug. While it was previously of high quality, it is now a rug that is both high and quality (probably made of hemp) or one that’s made of a quality that could be described as “high” (i.e., quality modifies high rather than the other way around, which again describes a rug that’s high).

Other Examples

Let’s go ahead and hammer this concept into your head.

The price of corn had reached an all time low.
should be
The price of corn had reached an all-time low.
(it’s not low in time, but the lowest it’s been in all time)

The short skirted woman had infinite legs.
should be
The short-skirted woman had infinite legs.
(she’s not a short, skirted woman—or if she is, her infinite legs might just make that acceptable)

The ambrosia like energy drink was highly addictive.
should be
The ambrosia-like energy drink was highly addictive.
(it’s not ambrosia being compared to an energy drink)

The rousing victory song caused an enthusiastic riot.
should be
The rousing victory-song caused an enthusiastic riot.
(The victory song was rousing, rather than it being a song of rousing victory.)

Enter Ambiguity

Okay, let me screw with you for a second.

The ambrosia-like energy-drink was highly addictive.

Is my second hyphen wrong? Well, no. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument for hyphenating it: If you don’t link “energy” and “drink” directly, the “ambrosia-like” term could be describing either the energy or the energy drink. It’s ambiguous. To modern readers, however, the phrase “energy drink” is fairly evident as being linked. So do we need to hyphenate it?

This sense of familiarity is the greatest cause of ambiguity in the use of hyphens. We can assume that people will read a commonly coupled phrase as being linked, even if we ourselves don’t link it with a hyphen. But what about foreign readers? What about readers twenty years down the line? What about those from a different culture? What if the subject isn’t what readers may automatically assume, such as if I changed the sentence above to, “Coffee, the ambrosia-like energy drink…”? Then it’s not so clear. In the end, it’s a judgment call situation—as is, fittingly enough, the phrase “judgment call situation”—and not always an easy one. Each writer must decide if the other parts of a sentence make the meaning obvious without a hyphen.

There are sentence components besides phrase familiarity that render a hyphen unnecessary, or at least make its appropriate use ambiguous. Next up is contextuality. If I say, “the metal heroin needle,” it’s pretty obvious from context that the heroin needle is what’s metal, not the heroin itself, so we’re fairly safe in leaving out the hyphen (but, no, it’s not wrong to stick it in—the hyphen, that is).

Next, we have typography. To take an example I recently found on an advertisement, there were two instances of the phrase, “Made with all natural fruit ingredients.” The first was laid out just like that, and really needs a hyphen at “all-natural” (because, no, not all of their ingredients were from natural fruit). However, they also had the exact same phrase laid out like this:

Made with
All Natural
Fruit Ingredients

It’s fairly obvious from the layout itself that “all natural” is linked, and that the “all” is not intended to modify the word “ingredients.” This can also happen easily in a normal sentence. For example, I could just emphasize that the blood curdling nature of the hyphen is important – and that typographical choice sets off the phrase. This can also be done with bold, quotation marks, and hyperlinks. In all of these cases, the presence of a hyphen is certainly not wrong, but it may not be necessary.

The “Re-String” Litmus Test

I’m often tempted to use a hyphen when it’s not appropriate to a sentence. (We can say I err on the side of clarity – but we could also say that I’m something of a hyphen molester) One of the best tests to figure out if a hyphen really does resolve ambiguity is to re-string the line of adjectives (or words that double as adjectives). When we look at the phrase “the three hundred blue geese,” we might want to put a hyphen between “three” and “hundred.” But is there a difference between three sets of a hundred blue geese and three hundred blue geese? The two remain, in all practical definition, entirely identical. And we can’t really say that “hundred blue” is a point of confusion; it just won’t register with readers.

We can use that same test to see that “the three hundred year old men” needs several hyphens, since it could be three men who are a hundred, or a set of men who are three hundred, or three hundred men who are one year old apiece.

As a general rule, if you can link all the words in a sequence in any given manner (A-B-C, A-B C, A B-C) without changing the essentially meaning, a hyphen is pointless—and, indeed, actually incorrect.

Additional Precautions

1) Check your dictionary.

There are a great many words in the English language that started out as two words, were promptly paired with such frequency that a hyphen became a part of their common construction, and were sometimes – after a few decades or centuries – combined into a single word. In cases like these, the hyphen is often left out because we’re so used to the words being associated, and we’ve forgotten that a hyphen is part of the official spelling. And as often as this mistake happens, we err in the opposite direction – hyphenating two parts of a single, compound word (stepchild, for instance – an error I made in the original draft of this blog entry). The best solution is to check a dictionary, online or offline, whenever there’s doubt.

2) Multi-word adjectives almost always need hyphens (when placed before the noun).

If you use a phrase like “high-quality,” “bone-rattling,” or “skull-splitting” as an adjective, you will almost always hyphenate the phrase. Sometimes these hyphens will not be strictly necessary when the descriptor is after the noun (for example, “I had a skull-splitting headache” as opposed to “the headache was skull splitting”). Some writers believe that these multi-word adjectives should still be hyphenated after the noun, but again, it’s a judgment call.

3) Recasting Is Your Friend

The sentence example I used above, “Coffee, the ambrosia-like energy drink,” will be unclear without a huge amount of hyphenation, and even then it’s very poor communication (“ambrosia-like-energy” squirms uncomfortably in one’s mind). If I really want to say the energy is like ambrosia, I’d be better off recasting to “Coffee, the drink with ambrosia-like energy.” When something isn’t working, recasting is often the best solution.

In Conclusion

Some people hate the hyphen. It’s frightening. It’s mysterious. It’s sinister. Worst of all, it calls for the use of conscious awareness of your writing! How could a little blip on a page be so powerful? But as much as this piece of punctuation does evil (which, I’ll admit, it does), it also does good. Without the hyphen, we’d be frightened of a man eating shark, when that man just happened to be hungry and have a taste for enormous seafood; we would suppose that life changing dates was an act of life playing with our calendar rather than having a few nights out with an exceptional new friend; and we’d think that a person with a devil may care attitude owns a devil and may care about attitude.

Hyphens are ambiguous in their use a good portion of the time, but by understanding the fundamentals you’ll be in a much better position to make an educated choice – and one you can stand behind – when shoving a space off the page in favor of this tremendously effective little dash.