Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Hyphen: A Not-So-Well-Known Rule

It's a good thing that the hyphen is not a frequently used punctuation mark because most people don't know how to use it. The hyphen is so misunderstood that many people call it a dash, which is a different punctuation mark. Someone recently asked me a trick question: "Do you hyphenate set up/set-up?" Sneaky sneaky.

It depends on how the words and words like them are used in a sentence. If they are nouns, yes; if they are verbs, no. Examples:

  • The set-up of this room is good. (noun)
  • Emily set up the room well. (verb)

Here are three more do's and a don't for hyphens. Use a hyphen for compound adjectives composed of a noun and an adjective, a noun and a participle, or an adjective and a participle; do not use a hyphen with an adverb and a participle:

  • Laura needs camera-ready art for the brochure. (noun + adjective = hyphen)
  • Meghan wants a custom-built car. (noun + participle = hyphen)
  • Nancy takes an open-minded position on this issue. (adjective + participle = hyphen)
  • Richard is a widely known firefighter. (adverb + participle = no hyphen) 

For that last bullet point, remember to avoid the hyphen with words ending in ly. Oxford Dictionaries provides excellent guidance on hyphen usage.