Hyphens and How to Use Them

Written by on March 6, 2018 in blog, editing, grammar, writing with 0 Comments

Hyphens and How to Use Them

When it comes to hyphenation, prose often suffers from the Goldilocks effect: either too much or too little, but seldom just right. Here are some erroneously constructed elements along with repaired revisions that let them eat, sit, or sleep with contentment. With no more delay, we’ll start. If we do this right, you may learn a little about hyphens and how to use them.

  • He was a hands-on manager with a roll-up-your sleeves attitude.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence from a grammatical standpoint—except one missing hyphen; other than that, the sentence works. The missing hyphen is one that should be between “your” and “sleeves.” The phrase “roll up your sleeves” describes what kind of attitude he has and as such needs to have hyphens connect all the words. Here’s the sentence after having been rewritten correctly.

  • He was a hands-on manager with a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude.

I saw this not too long ago.

  • “We provide an industry leading cloud based information management solution.”

That sentence screams for a handful of hyphens to link many of the words (“industry-leading,” “cloud-based,” “information-management”). But putting those hyphens where they belong ignores the fact that with or without the hyphens, that sentence is horribly written. It’s full of adjectives stacked upon other adjectives.

Let’s see if we can rewrite the sentence.

  • “We provide a cloud-based solution for information management that has been rated number one in the industry.”

It’s still a terrible sentence, but it’s a less terrible one than it was.

Here’s another one:

  • My barn is forty feet wide and sixty feet long, which means my wild boar, Dennis, lives in a 2,400-square foot home.

Everything about this sentence was fine until we got to the end. Dennis does not live in a 2,400-square “foot home.” He lives in a 2,400-square-foot home. In the first sentence, the word “foot” was not tied to 2,400-square, but in the second sentence they were properly joined by hyphens which modified the word “home.”

Hyphens and how to use them

  • The teacher was tired from watching the first and second-grade kids all day.

This sentence started off okay, but assuming the teacher watched kids of both grades, then she watched “first- and second-grade kids.”

The reason is that what you’re really saying is that she is watching the “first-grade kids,” and she is watching the “second-grade kids.”

Just because you omitted the words “grade and kids” from the early part of the sentence does not change the fact that “first” still describes some of the kids.

Also, make sure you use hyphens and not “en” or “em” dashes. If you have questions on which to use when, see this blog on How to Use an Em Dash

Hyphens and how to use them

  • It was a friendly-looking dog, but then it began growling, and it appeared to be a very-threatening dog.

At first glance, this seems to be right, but a closer analysis will show that “very-threatening” does not need a hyphen.

“Ly” adverbs, as well as “very” do not take a hyphen. And before you chide me for “friendly-looking” remember that “friendly” is an adjective. If you go here, you’ll find a list of adjectives that end in “ly.”

Hyphens and How to Use Them

Most of us know that a hyphen is used to split a word when it doesn’t fit on the line. It’s split at a syllable break. All of this used to be done manually, but now the computers handle that for us.

That’s both good and bad. It’s good because the computers provide a level of expertise and consistency that all but a good editor might possess. It’s bad because it makes the rest of us almost forget about hyphens and one of their uses.

We still have other uses for hyphens though, and computers are a long way from being able to master this function. Here’s one of the rules:

Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun and modify or describe it as if it were one idea. This is called a compound adjective. I’ve included a few examples below.


  • She had dirty-blonde hair.

If we didn’t use the hyphen, we’d be saying she had dirty hair that happened to be blonde, but with the hyphen, we’re describing her hair as being the color “dirty blonde.”

Below is a picture of my granddaughter on go-Texan day. Go-Texan is hyphenated because it describes the day. It’s a specific day.

Hyphens and when to use them

There are a lot of rules that govern the use of compound adjectives and compound modifiers, but the main rule is to use hyphens when it will clarify something and avoid confusion.

And remember, you don’t use hyphens with adverbs that end in “ly” or the adverb “very.” Be careful though of the adjectives that end in “ly.”

✅ July was a very hot month even for Texas.

❌ The Ferrari had a finely-tuned engine.

❌ She had a lovely looking smile.

The first sentence is correct because we do not use a hyphen with “very,” and the second sentence is wrong because the word “finely” is an adverb and does not need the hyphen. The last sentence is wrong because “lovely” is an adjective and requires the hyphen.

Another Hyphen Rule

We’re not going to cover all the rules on hyphens, but let’s at least do one more in our quest to find out about hyphens and how to use them.

Hyphens are used to indicate the age of a person or animal or a thing. A good rule is to use hyphens unless the period of time is written in plural form. This can be confusing so I’ll show you an example or two.

  • My son has a five-year-old child.
  • He also has a three-year-old.
  • His son is three years old.

One mistake many writers make is forgetting to add the second hyphen. They’ll write it as:

  • My son has a five-year old child.

When that second hyphen is omitted, it changes the meaning of the sentence. It goes from describing a child who is five years old to describing an old child.


There is an exception to this, but you knew there would be. If you’re describing something that is one year old, or one month old, or one week old, no hyphen is used as the following example shows.

  • Our dog is one year old.

This is by no means a comprehensive set of rules for hyphens and how to use them, but it’s a start. I’ll do another post later that will cover some of the other rules. In the meantime, practice these and see if you can get them right.

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Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes nonfiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammarpublishing., and children’s fiction and nonfiction.

When Giacomo isn’t writing, he’s helping his wife take care of the animals on their sanctuary. At last count, they had forty animals—seven dogs, one horse, six cats, and twenty-five pigs.

Oh, and one crazy—and very large—wild boar, who used to take walks with Giacomo every day.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with forty loving “friends.”



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About the Author

About the Author: Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends. .

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