To Be Con-

by Cherie Tucker

When readers see the little hyphen at the end of a syllable, they memorize that syllable and look for the next part of the word it should stick onto. They know how to do that. The hyphenation situation that causes misreading occurs when writers join two or more unrelated words into a new combination that reads as a single modifier before a noun, and they forget the little hyphen. For example, take the words drive up. 

Why don’t you drive up to my house?

Here it’s clear that the two words are intentionally separate. However, change it to 

We have installed a new drive-up window.

Now the two words describe a type of window, not a direction for driving. The combined words function as a single descriptive concept, so the hyphen prevents misreading.

There are two ways to check to see if that hyphen is necessary. First, use each of the words individually to describe the noun. If they work that way, no hyphens are needed.

We just got a sweet, little, precious, black puppy.

In this sentence, each word modifies puppy. It’s sweet and little and precious and black. Each word alone describes that puppy, so you use commas, not hyphens here. If they don’t work individually, as in the drive-up window example—it’s not a drive window or an up window—then you need the hyphen. Also, you are not limited to only two words when hyphenating. You might need more.

You just wipe that I-didn’t-have-anything-to-do-with-it look off your face and help me clean this mess.

That brings us to the second test: ask yourself whether the reader will realize that two words are a unit if there is a line break or a page turn after the first word. Try this:

The house was far more expensive than anticipated, so we settled for a long 
term payment plan. 

A break like that often causes readers to stop in confusion (not a writer’s goal), and they have to read the sentence again to discover that you meant long-term. Or maybe they just put the piece down and go get some coffee.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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