Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Hyphens – part 1: avoiding confusion

with 20 comments

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Some-people-sprinkle-hyphens-around-like-confetti. They figure at least one or two will end up in the right place.

Others refuse to use them, so I don’t know if they’re telling me about a ‘little used-car’ or a ‘little-used car’; or ‘20 odd books’ or  ‘20-odd books’. (I’d probably prefer to read the former.)

The hyphen is difficult to pin down because the way it is used is constantly changing. This short series will help to ensure you won’t go too far wrong.

Avoiding confusion

The hyphen is a brilliant little punctuation mark to use when you want to avoid confusion.

Place a hyphen between two words if the meaning will be confusing without one. Look at the following examples:

Three year old children

Depending on the meaning intended, this should be either:

Three year-old children (three children who are all a year old.)


Three-year-old children (two or more children who are three years old)


A little used car

Depending on the meaning intended, this should be either:

A little-used car (one that’s not been used much)


A little used-car (a small, second-hand car)


The author’s 20 odd books

Unless the author is being insulted, this should be:

The author’s 20-odd books (as in, ‘approximately 20 books’)


Man eating tiger

Unless the man is eating the tiger, this should be:

Man-eating tiger

Hyphens and numbers

Hyphens and compass points

Hyphens and separating identical letters

Hyphens and compound nouns

Hyphens and compound adjectives

Hyphens and ‘un’ words

User-friendly info on punctuation


20 Responses

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  1. Would you say that “orange juice salesperson” is an exception to the hyphenate-all-compound-modifiers rule? I know it’s “high school students,” but is it “high-school-age students” or “high school-age students”? If it’s “submachine gun” and “gunfire,” is it then “submachine gunfire”? Does an elementary schoolteacher teach grade school or is the teacher too basic? (Exs. from Bill Walsh.)

    Michael Farrell

    20/02/2010 at 4:09 pm

  2. Hi, Michael — interesting, interesting. This post is about using hyphens to ensure clarity. Bearing that in mind, this is what I think:

    ‘Orange juice salesman’ — fine without any hyphens. As it is, no one is going to wonder if the salesman is orange in colour; although they might if a hyphen was placed between ‘juice’ and ‘salesman’. No need to hyphenate orange juice, in my humble.

    Any version of ‘high school age students’ doesn’t look very pretty. This is all subjective, but I don’t think I’d write ‘high school-age students’ — the ‘high’ seems to hang there on its own and suggest the students are ‘high’. (On drugs? Up a ladder?)

    I don’t like ‘high-school-age students’ either (grammatically, that is). It seems to attach ‘age’ to the high school rather than the students. I don’t think I would use any hyphens at all. Perhaps you disagree?

    In the UK, we’d probably write ‘sub-machine gun’ (rather than running ‘submachine’ together.) I don’t see any problem with ‘sub-machine gunfire’. The meaning is clear enough. It would be a bit ponderous to write (or say): ‘sub-machine gun gunfire’, or even ‘sub-machine-gun gunfire’ — although it would be justifiable.

    ‘Elementary schoolteacher’? You are just teasing me now. The meaning is clear; its deliberate misinterpretation is not exactly Wildean.

    Hyphens are an interesting topic. I think the first consideration is always: will my reader understand what I’m saying?

    Thanks for these examples, Michael. Now you can tell me what you think!


    20/02/2010 at 8:09 pm

  3. *melting away @ “not exactly Wildean”* hahaha

    I’d say you have accurately captured the rationale for hyphens, as well as the need for a commonsense approach. When the number of hyphens reaches three or more, maybe time to recast the whole thing. Walsh gives the ugly example “anti-capital-gains-tax-cut forces.” One proposed rewrite: “forces opposed to a cut in the capital-gains tax.”

    Walsh notes that hyphenation is an all-or-nothing proposition: once you decide to use hyphens in a compound modifier, you can’t drop one or two because they look ugly or you feel like it. So if you want to use a hyphen in “high school-age students,” you need to go all-out and make it “high-school-age students.” “Don’t be afraid,” he advises.

    Walsh mildly suggests (not insists on) a hyphen in “orange-juice salesperson.” He worries that, for one tiny sec, the reader sees “orange,” then “juice,” and thinks he or she has it: it’s about orange juice. Then the main noun shows up.

    Submachine gunfire and elementary schoolteacher are both the same sort of problem: using them in that way is not recognizing the role the modifiers and main nouns (“fire” and “teacher”) play. Best would be “submachine-gun fire” [UK: sub-machine-gun fire] and “elementary-school teacher.”

    Next: Are olderpreneurs small businessmen?

    Michael Farrell

    20/02/2010 at 10:35 pm

    • I don’t like ‘orange-juice salesman’ – how long is a reader going to linger over:
      ‘orange’………………………………..then ‘juice’…………………………………………………….then ‘blimey, we’re talking about a salesman here; I did not see that one coming.’

      The ‘sub-machine gun’ solution is very elegant. (Grammatically, not in a Mafia sense).

      Next: Is use of the generic term ‘businessmen’ either acceptable or accurate? Discuss.

      Thanks very much for all this interesting stuff, Michael!


      21/02/2010 at 8:48 am

  4. I assumed you’d have no problem with “businessmen,” since you kept correcting my “salesperson” to “salesman.”

    Meanwhile, I’m having some fat-free yogurt while trying to become a well-read person on the upcoming two-man bobsled event.

    Michael Farrell

    21/02/2010 at 3:51 pm

    • Touché, my friend. Touché. How stupid am I?


      21/02/2010 at 3:54 pm

      • …except you did say ‘salesman’ originally. I take back that touché.


        21/02/2010 at 3:55 pm

        • … no you didn’t. I did. Touché reinstated.


          21/02/2010 at 3:57 pm

          • No take-backs allowed.

            Michael Farrell

            21/02/2010 at 5:09 pm

            • It was an invalid take-back anyway.


              21/02/2010 at 5:12 pm

              • Then I’ll set aside my high dudgeon at “man-eating tiger.”

                Michael Farrell

                21/02/2010 at 5:29 pm

                • Oh, I don’t know (serious hat, earnest face).

                  ‘Man-eating tiger’ is a good example of our male-saturated language…but I have to say, I think that one’s probably a lost cause. I am, though, always trying to think of an alternative to ‘man-made’.

                  Suggestions I’ve read include ‘handmade’, ‘synthetic’, ‘manufactured’, ‘fabricated’, ‘machine-made’ and ‘constructed’. But none of those would work well (in my opinion) in a sentence such as: “The mammoth task of draining the huge man-made lake was completed yesterday.”

                  OK, I’ll go away now.


                  22/02/2010 at 10:40 am

                  • I remain deeply offended. Not only have you suggested that tigers prefer men-meat, but you have implied that men are slower, somehow more willing, tigeral victims.

                    Now, as for tigers: Is it really necessary to describe them as carnivores? Does that define who tigers are? Why can’t they simply be admired for their striped pelts, excellent vision, and leaping skills? To the extent we perpetuate this invidious myth about their carnivorous traits, aren’t we really complicit in their eradication worldwide?

                    Michael Farrell

                    22/02/2010 at 4:14 pm

  5. And please don’t use a single hyphen for a dash, something that is rife these days. For a dash, use two hyphens or an “em dash” that comes with your word processing software. E.g., I like fruits — especially apples — because they’re good for your health. In Word, if you type two hyphens, then hit “enter,” an em dash should appear, then you hit “backspace” to go back to where you were. Also, before you use hyphens, think about using two commas to set off the phrase you’re trying to emphasize.

    Don Bates

    22/02/2010 at 2:18 am

    • Hello, Don — thanks very much for that clear explanation. I am guilty myself of using a hyphen instead of a proper dash, particularly when writing quickly and informally (you’ve probably been gnashing your teeth every time you’ve seen me do it on this blog!) You are absolutely right to point out this error. I think it’s particularly important for formal writing of any kind.

      Here’s some info about using commas in the way you describe.

      I’m now going to stand in the corner for ten minutes and then write 100 lines: ‘I must set a better example on my blog.’

      Seriously — thanks, Don. A good point, well made.


      22/02/2010 at 8:01 am

  6. Here’s SFGate.com’s comments policy: “We encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point.”

    I’m not happy with “to-the-point.” Aside from the fact that something like “brief” or “pointed” would serve better, I don’t think you need the hyphens, since the adj. comes after the noun “comments.” SFGate sure didn’t use any for “on topic.” (You might use hyphens if it were instead “to-the-point comments.”)

    Michael Farrell

    04/03/2010 at 6:03 am

    • And why not just say something like: “We encourage brief comments on topical issues.”?

      Thanks for that example of completely-unnecessary-hyphens, Michael.


      04/03/2010 at 6:25 am

  7. This was soooo close to being right:

    “I’m extremely excited to be coming here to the Lakers,” said Blake, a 30-year-old ball-handling guard who signed a four-year, $16-million deal.

    Most stylists say that adjectives like “$16 million” don’t need a hyphen to add clarity. The dollar amount obviously modifies “million” and both obviously modify the noun that follows.

    Michael Farrell

    15/07/2010 at 4:21 pm

    • That’s really funny. You sort of hold your breath until the end of the sentence. Like you say, so close…


      15/07/2010 at 5:25 pm

  8. Example of an unnecessary hyphen highlighted in The New York Times’ After Deadline column:

    Now that the most-gifted players, like Baylor’s Perry Jones, stay for only one season, does college basketball matter?

    No hyphen necessary unless the phase is ambiguous without one.


    29/03/2011 at 5:44 pm

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