A Simple Hyphenation Rule That Is Well Advised

One hyphenation rule that you can almost take to the bank is this one: When you use a compound adjective (or phrasal adjective) before a noun, use a hyphen. When the phrasal adjective comes after the noun, it is usually open.

See how this plays out with various parts of speech:

  • Middle-class neighborhood, but the neighborhood is middle class (adjective + noun)
  • Open-ended question, but the question was open ended (adjective + participle)
  • Much-needed rain, but rain was much needed (adverb + participle or adjective)

But adverbs ending in ly + participle or adjective are almost always open whether they are used before or after a noun.

  • Overly protective mother
  • Highly skilled employees

Likewise, compounds with more, most, less, least, and very are usually open unless the meaning could be confused.

  • Most literate employees (referring to number of employees)
  • Most-literate employees (referring to literacy capacity)

Rules with participles:

  • Flag-waving citizen, but citizens waving flags (noun + participle)
  • Cutting-edge technology, but technology is cutting edge. (participle + noun)

Participle + up, out, and similar adverbs:

  • Fired-up employees, but employees were fired up.
  • Tuckered-out children, but children were tuckered out.

You can see there is a general rule here. When you place the compound after  a noun, you usually leave it in open construction. When it comes before the noun, it’s usually closed.

But always double check the word in your dictionary to make sure it’s not one of those exceptions to the rule, which is a common occurrence in the English language.

6 Responses to “A Simple Hyphenation Rule That Is Well Advised”

  1. Matthew Eaton March 21, 2014 at 2:44 am #

    Man, I always have trouble with hyphens. I still have a hard time wrangling them in, but this will help me out some. Now if only I could word well…hmm…

    Thanks for sharing this, much appreciated!

  2. Katherine James March 21, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I tend to wing it when it comes to the rules of hyphenation (in this internet age).

    Too often, my auto-correct is dying to tell me to change words like Facebook to Face-book and so on.

  3. Vie March 23, 2014 at 6:54 am #

    I have a copy of your book and enjoy just reading through it. (As opposed to only looking up specific things.) Thanks for this concise reminder about hyphenation.

  4. Micaela July 20, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    This is great. Thanks so much for posting this!

  5. Micaela July 20, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    Also, how does it work with verbs? For instance, would you say “We absent-mindedly visited an elderly woman” or “We absent mindedly visited an elderly woman”?

    • cslakin July 21, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      Actually, it’s “absentmindedly” as one word. First look up the word in the M-W Collegiate 11th Edition to see if it’s listed already. If not, usually you will hyphenate any compound that is describing a noun following.

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