Hyphens, Part I: Two-for-One Special!

The Grammar PatrolWe (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.


In a variation of Will Shakespeare’s oft-quoted phrase, “To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?—that is the question.”


We’ve chatted before on this blog about hyphens versus em dashes (—) and en dashes (–). See  Ems and Ens for Writers Tuesday, May 1st, 2012.

This month we’ll focus on the little guys, hyphens.

Hyphens (-) link words together and can help avoid confusion.

“Running mate” needs no hyphen, but does as an adjective, as in “running-mate criteria.” The hyphen shows that “mate” goes with “running,” not “criteria.” Think smoke-free airport, self-help books, cell-phone plans.


When to Use Hyphens        

• With some prefixes, especially when the root word is capitalized:

self-discovery, ex-president, pre-Oscar party, pre-Jurassic era, mid-January

• With blended double surnames:

Ochoa-Roberts                       Greenfield-Martin

• With compound modifiers:

a can’t-miss putt                      a first-ever book contract

Alas, hyphens don’t always stick to the rules. Different current dictionaries recognize both mouthwatering (no hyphen) and mouth-watering (with hyphen) as adjectives. Work-release has a hyphen; workroom does not. Witch-hunt, yes. Witchcraft, no.  Go figure!


Words and Hyphens

The prefix “re-“ means “again.” But a hyphen can change the meaning of a word: re-count (count again) vs. recount (tell in detail)

In one of our grammar classes, a man told a story that highlights the difference a hyphen can make. His boss sent the man an email asking him to re-send her some information. He faxed it, then emailed her, “I resent it.” When the boss returned to the office, she asked, “Jason, why did you resent sending me that information again?” (Jason had typed “resent” for “re-sent.”)

Many words that start with the prefix “re-” don’t require a hyphen: recrown, redrawn, rehire, reheat, repaint, repurpose. But be careful to note when omitting the hyphen changes the meaning of the word:

“represent” (to stand for) or “re-present” (to present again)

“repose” (calmness) or “re-pose” (to pose again)

“reprove” (to rebuke) or “re-prove” (to prove again)

“resort” (n., vacation spot; v., to go or turn to) or “re-sort” (to sort again)

“restrain” (to hold back) or “re-strain” (to strain again)


Tricky Hyphen Issues

Does a toddler pick up her toys, pick-up her toys, or pickup her toys?

Do you hanker for a bright red pickup truck, pick-up truck, or pick up truck?

The answers are trickier than you might think. Words are constantly evolving and some lose their hyphens and become single words.

(Did you know the answer? You pick up toys in a pickup truck.)

Please Comment

We hope this review helped you pick up some hyphen pointers. The Grammar Patrol has done in-depth hyphen explorations for the biographies and other books we’ve both written. Hope you’ll avoid mix-ups and not be mixed up when it comes to hyphens. Love your well-polished comments—chime in. As always, you can check out our two handy grammar guides: Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar for details.

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One Response to “Hyphens, Part I: Two-for-One Special!”

  1. Kate Says:

    Okay — I need to know about noun and verb/verbal combinations
    people-watch(ed, ing, er)??
    I think dog-catcher might go with or without, what about dog-catching as a verb, not an occupation?

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