To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate

Today’s post is aimed especially at those writers who seem somewhat clueless about using hyphens, particularly between pairs of adjectives modifying a noun, or rather an adjective modifying another adjective modifying a noun. Does that make sense?

To make this a little clearer, let’s take this sentence: “His lime-green shirt was perfect for St. Patrick’s Day.” Since “lime” actually modifies “green,” then a hyphen is desirable. Together they form a single concept. Without that hyphen, a reader might stumble a bit since a first-glance reading, as in: “His lime green shirt was perfect for St. Patrick’s Day,” may seem to indicate “lime” modifying “shirt” instead, which is incorrect.

No hard-and-fast rules exist about using hyphens, but they, like all other forms of punctuation, are intended primarily to smooth the way for readers, to avoid ambiguity. Another example would be: “The 23-year-old woman could shoot better than most men.” In this case, two hyphens are needed to link the three adjectives together.

An exception, if you can call it that, would be using an -ly word, actually an adverb, to modify the adjective, as in: “The quickly rising tsunami threatened to wipe out everyone on the island.” No hyphen is needed. The same is true if the adverb used is “very,” as in: “very attractive woman.” A little common sense is needed in such common-sense-free construction, or is it common sense free construction? (Ha, ha, just testing you.)


Dear Maggie,

I keep hearing different opinions about hyphenating adjectives in front of nouns when one adjective modifies the next one, like “It was time for her next red-hat ritual.” Or should it be, “It was time for her next red hat ritual.”

 I would guess one or the other has to be correct, but which one?

Yours truly,

Ms. Hyphen Hysteria

Dear Hysteria,

That was a brilliant guess, Ms. Hysteria. You obviously are one of the brighter contributors to the writing tip genre, if I may be so bold. Yes, indeedy, one or the other does have to be correct, although…”

 Never mind. Let’s not further confuse an already confusing issue. The rule of thumb is, when a noun is preceded by a pair of adjectives, the first of which modifies the second of the pair (or triplet as the case may be), usually they should be hyphenated to avoid confusion and, in your case, hysteria. In your second example without the hyphen, it would be difficult for the average reader to determine if “red” modified “ritual” or “hat.” Your first example clarifies that quite nicely with the insertion of a hyphen between “red” and “hat.”

Here’s another example of incorrect usage: “The 500 pound bear appeared ready to charge.” It is incorrect because when your reader is tripping along, his/her tongue may literally trip over that sentence, because s/he expects the “500” to modify “bear” as it’s written. Therefore, “The 500-pound bear appeared ready to charge,” reads more smoothly as it leaves no doubt as to which word “500” refers to at first glance.

 And believe me, one glance is generally enough for the works of most of the “writers” who pester me daily.

 Now if a 500-pound writer appeared ready to charge, I would either be quaking in my already-wet boots, or I’d be laughing so hard I’d piss myself. That reminds me of an actual incident in my advanced fencing class back in my long-lost youth at Ohio University, when one of my fellow fencing students, who was rather obese, did in fact lunge at me in our match. But we’ll leave that for another time.


About aakemp

I am a fiction writer and freelance writer/proofreader with excellent research abilities as well. What I offer is high quality writing done in a smooth, logically consistent and error-free manner. No fluff ever with my writing! Just intelligent, interesting copy. My novels include the young adult fantasy, "The Dragons of Atlantis" and the thriller/mystery, "Beneath the Smoke," available on Amazon's Kindle program. Also "The Dragons of Atlantis" is available on as an ebook or hard copy.
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