Hyphens have so many uses! They’re often used incorrectly, either appearing where they shouldn’t, or not being used when they should be. Along with comma usage, proper hyphenation is a common concern.
- His boss is totally self aggrandizing.
- She has a seven year old son.
- I always use a quarter cup of semisweet chocolate chips in my cookies.
With a hyphen you may join adjectives before a noun (weak-armed pitcher), with compound numbers (seven-year-old), with fractions (a quarter-cup), with a prefix connected to a proper noun (un-American), or to enhance clarity (de-ice). Lastly, use them with half, all, and self prefixes (half-baked, all-in, and self-aggrandizing). In each case, the hyphen connects two or more related words. The most important rule is that we use them to avoid confusion.
MORE TO KNOW
Don’t use a hyphen if you are using just one adjective; for example, she is an African American. With two adjectives, the hyphen is required: African-American woman. Adverbs ending in –ly do not take a hyphen (as in “quickly melting chocolate”). Language changes over time, and the hyphen has not been immune; for example, we used to eat ice-cream and tried to avoid being stung by bumble-bees in the summer. Those hyphens, and many others, have disappeared and the words were either separated (ice cream) or brought together (bumblebee). The internet age influences hyphen usage too; for example, words such as hyperlink and toolbar are unhyphenated because hyphens mess with coding issues.