by Trista Cornelius
The Not-So-Often-Used Hyphen
Not everyone agrees on hyphen rules, or even on the necessity of hyphens. One of the few universal rules is to use them with numbers; i.e., twenty-one to ninety-nine.
However, the hyphen rule that creative writers might tangle with relates to descriptive words, sometimes called compound modifiers: two or more words describing a noun.
Normally, a comma separates descriptive words:
Rosaria tapped her long, red, manicured nails thoughtfully.
The commas separate long, red, and manicured, and the reader knows all three words describe Rosaria’s nails. If the word and can connect the descriptive words, use a comma, not a hyphen:
… her long and red and manicured nails.
Sometimes it can be unclear, however, which words the modifiers describe. In the example below, does the word sweet describe the pie or does it describe the type of potato?
Rosaria tapped her long, red, manicured nails thoughtfully as she studied the recipe for silky, organic, sweet-potato pie.
The hyphen makes it clear that sweet describes the type of potato. The noun potato is functioning as an adjective to describe the type of pie.
This way, when your movie script about Rosaria is optioned for a film, the director won’t have to guess whether the next scene should show her at the market collecting Russet or sweet potatoes.
Alas, does it really matter? Maybe. Maybe not.
If, while she’s at the market, Rosaria reads a sign that says fat free fruit, notices plump plums and peaches on display, and bites into one without paying for it, she could argue the compound modifier was not clear. She read free fruit that is fat, not fruit that is fat-free.
Okay, but now Rosaria’s character is coming across as a little too literal minded. You’ve created her to have more discernment than that, so the director of the film would assume she knew the sign meant the fruit was fat-free. However, what if the director of your script reads that Rosaria has two year old children?
The director sighs and wonders how many two-year-olds Rosaria really has and questions the believability of this pie-making Super Mom.
The understudy for Rosaria’s character, however, interprets the script differently and imagines Rosaria having two year-old children, a whole different set of challenges in Rosaria’s life.
Either Rosaria has an untold number of two-year-olds under her care, or she has two year-old children. Either way, she has no time to make sweet-potato pie.
Ultimately, it comes down to clarity. If Rosaria’s friend calls her from a swanky restaurant and says, Honey, I saw a man eating shark! Rosaria will know that her eco-conscious friend is shocked to discover shark on a menu and to see a man eating it. If her friend, who has a penchant for surfing on weekends, fails to tell Rosaria she’s calling from a restaurant, Rosaria might be more concerned to hear, Honey, I saw a man-eating shark!
You’re starting to see how hyphen rules depend on context, but I am a hyphen-loving reader. I especially like it when over-the-top-shout-it-from-the-rooftops-types of writers use hyphens to fence together a slew of descriptors. Perhaps it’s because in first grade, my first-grade teacher did such a good job of explaining punctuation. (Actually, I’m sure I knew nothing of hyphens in first grade; I just wanted you to see the hyphen paradox: No need for a hyphen when talking about what you learned in first grade, but you do need a hyphen when talking about your first-grade teacher or your first-grade classroom.)
A friend pointed out at least one instance where writers ought to care about the hyphen. She said, The author has published twenty odd books, and smirked. Does that mean twenty-odd, as in, roughly twenty books? Or are all of the twenty books odd? And, better yet, which helps the writer’s reputation more?
Lastly, one hyphen rule people seem to agree on is with prefixes that could confuse the reader, like re-form and reform.
Did Rosaria re-collect the two year-old children from the back seat of the car? Or, did she recollect the many two-year-old children she once tended when she was a teenage baby sitter?
You can decide how to re-create Rosaria’s life while I go recreate after studying these little-used hyphen rules.
This is the fifth in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!