I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about punctuation, but when I’m proofreading I consider every punctuation mark. Today I’m thinking about hyphens used with compound modifiers – and how following strict hyphenation rules can easily distract the reader.
Actually, there are few hard-and-fast rules about hyphenating compound modifiers. As a general rule, hyphenate a compound modifier that comes before a noun (full-time employees). But even then, you can use your own judgment.
(Almost) always hyphenate
Hyphenate these compound modifiers when they come before a noun:
- Color terms when the elements are of equal importance (blue-green dress)
- A cardinal number and a unit of measurement before a noun (100-yard dash)
- Adjectival compounds beginning with high and low (high-level programming language)
- Adverb-adjective combinations (much-loved character)
- “Two-thought” compounds (socio-economic)
Hyphenate compounds beginning with self or half, whether or not they precede a noun:
I believed he was self-reliant. This idea turned out to be half-baked!
(Almost) never hyphenate
- Combinations that are ordinarily hyphenated before a noun are often not hyphenated
after a noun: Employees who expressed satisfaction generally work full time.
- Don’t hyphenate adverbs ending in ly + a participle or adjective (a highly complex system).
- Word-forming prefixes do not require hyphens: anteroom, binomial, infrastructure.
- Proper nouns (anti-Semitic)
- Words that without hyphens could look like other words (un-ionized)
- Words with identical letters that need separating (pre-empt)
Exceptions to the almost-never-hyphenate rule:
Breaking the rules
All these rules are helpful, but style guides almost always admonish readers to seek clarity before slavishly following rules. Applied without restraint, hyphenation rules can result in a sea of hyphens that make the text difficult to read. If sentences are succinct and clear, I suggest not over worrying about hyphenation.