A proofreader read a manuscript of mine recently and inserted dozens of hyphens. She was clearly a bigger fan of them than me, although I did agree with her that great-grandmother should, after all, be hyphenated to make it clear you mean the mother of someone’s grandmother and not just a grandmother who’s a good egg. But I didn’t go along with all her hyphenating suggestions, feeling that some of them were simply unnecessary.
Then, in my super-hyphen-aware state I read The Maltese Falcon (originally published in 1930) and couldn’t help noticing hyphens popping up all over the place like they were going out of fashion. For example:
Good grief. Did the hyphen have its heyday in the 1930s?
Personally, I wouldn’t use hyphens in any of the above. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynne Truss acknowledges that the hyphen is generally fading from common usage.
There is still, however, a use for the hyphen so it can’t slink off into retirement just yet. Here are a few places where it should (and shouldn’t) be used.
Here’s a legitimate use for the hyphen: when you have what I like to call a double-barrelled adjective. The opening page of Robert Galbraith’s (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling has some good examples:
- long-snouted cameras
- red-brick apartment block
- woolly-hatted cameramen
- white-clothed forensic experts
In the above examples, the first half of the adjective qualifies the second half. So, for example, we understand that it’s the hats that are woolly and not the cameramen themselves which is how you could read it if if weren’t for the hyphen.
- woolly hatted cameramen = woolly cameramen wearing hats
But if you’re qualifying the adjective with an adverb then you definitely don’t want to join the adverb and adjective together with a hyphen:
- brightly painted houses
Noun Phrases acting as Adjectives
If you have a noun phrase like stainless steel you don’t need a hyphen. But if the phrase stainless steel is used like an adjective then you should hyphenate it. For example:
- The cutlery was made from stainless steel.
- The stainless-steel cutlery was laid on the table.
- The eighteenth century was a time of bloody revolutions.
- Dangerous Liaisons is an eighteenth-century novel.
Hyphens are still used in numbers written as words.
- The legal drinking age in America is twenty-one.
- The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel.
With Certain Prefixes
In Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynne Truss advises that hyphens should be used with certain prefixes:
But this isn’t a universal rule. The following are all legitimate words that don’t need a hyphen:
When Hyphens are not Required
Hyphens are not required in phrases like these:
- side to side
- top to toe
- head over heels
They are also not required in verb phrases where a preposition is commonly used in conjunction with the main verb. So, for example:
- The game kicked off at seven.
- Hold on tight.
- He was let off the hook.