Hyphenation Primer

The small-dog show featured some of my favorite breeds.

Isn’t quite the same as:

Our community center is hosting a small dog show for friends and neighbors.

Hyphenation matters.

When two—or more, but mostly two—words come together to form a compound, there can be confusion about the hyphenation of terms. Certain terms are always hyphenated, like the numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine. And some terms are always closed, such as the directions northeast and southwest.

Most compounds should be hyphenated when used as an adjective (an adjectival compound) and placed before the noun. For example:

She took her well-mannered children to visit their grandparents.

But when the adjective comes after the noun, there’s no hyphenation:

Good grief, those children are not very well mannered.

You may have noticed that I said compounds should be hyphenated, not must be hyphenated. Hyphenation is all about clarity and readability. While some terms are listed in the dictionary (at Write Divas, we use Merriam Webster Unabridged) and therefore should be spelled as such, other terms are not, and authors and editors use style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, to determine hyphenation.

The Chicago Manual of Style says that with the exception of proper nouns and compounds formed with an ly adverb, it’s never incorrect to hyphenate an adjectival compound before a noun. Not that it’s necessary, just that it’s not incorrect if you decide to be as clear as possible and hyphenate all of your compounds before your nouns.

Except the ones created with ly adverbs, of course. Because the ly adverb in compounds such as falsely accused or happily married indicates to the reader that the word following it is another modifier, not a noun, there is usually little confusion.

Some of the terms I’ve seen authors struggle with the most are the age terms. When there is an age modifying a noun or an implied noun, the age term is always hyphenated. For example:

I have a nine-year-old daughter.

I have a twelve-year-old.

In the second sentence, the noun—whether it be child, girl, son, dog, whatever—is implied and therefore the compound is hyphenated.  However, when the age term is not modifying a noun, it is not hyphenated.

My dog is seven years old.

Numbers and measurements follow the same format as age terms, which is helpful. If the number term modifies a noun, it is hyphenated:

My son came in third in the fifty-yard dash.

Can you sew a two-inch hem on these pants?


The ceiling is eight feet high.

The driveway is 100 yards long.

When in doubt, check your dictionary first. Make sure to verify the part of speech you’re using and how it’s used in a sentence. Webster says good-looking is hyphenated as an adjective always—before and after the noun.

If there’s no listing for your compound in your dictionary, use your style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style has a hyphenation guide that we reference like scripture with chapter and verse. They even have a handy PDF version you can save to your desktop for ease of reference.

If you can’t find an example of your compound—or an equivalent compound from which to extrapolate your answer—in your style guide, you may want to hyphenate it just in case. You can never be too clear.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: