By Mignon Fogarty 

Today’s topic is hyphens.

Recently a friend was watching the cable channel CNBC and called me over to the TV because the hosts were talking about hyphens. Yup, in the middle of a segment on the economy, they started talking about hyphens because the ticker read something like Is the glass half full or half empty? The original ticker had half full and half empty without hyphens, and then the next minute the words showed up with hyphens.

You could see evidence of a hyphen debate taking place right on the screen. Clearly one person who had control of the ticker favored hyphens and another person who also had control of the ticker did not.

The hosts noticed and started talking about it themselves. Fun stuff!

How to Use Hyphens

It turns out the first person was on the right track. In the sentence Is the glass half full? you don’t need a hyphen between half and full. However, if we put the words half full before the word glass so that they are acting as a compound modifier, then it makes sense to use a hyphen. The sentence would read He was holding a half-full glass.

Now, the detail-oriented people among you will notice that I didn’t say anyone was right or wrong, and I didn’t use strong words such as should hyphenate or must hyphenate. I chose my words carefully because the rules about hyphens can hardly be called rules; there are so many exceptions it’s making me crazy.

The safest thing to do when you’re unsure about hyphenating is to look the words up in a dictionary. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary generally recommends hyphenating half-full when it comes before a noun and not hyphenating it otherwise, but the dictionary also shows exceptions. It’s also common for published and in-house style guides to have a list of compound words that should be hyphenated. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style has a long guide to hyphenation and states that most compounds that begin with the word half are hyphenated when they come before nouns. So, my advice is to check a dictionary or style guide, but if you don’t have one handy, follow the rule that you hyphenate compound modifiers when they come before a noun, and don’t hyphenate them when they come after a noun.

Find more examples and finish reading about hyphens over at www.QuickAndDirtyTips.com

avatar-faceMignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips.

Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

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