ASK A GRAMMAR NERD: Using the Hyphen as a Modifier

Here are some examples of how to use the hyphen as a modifier, using characters from “Dawson’s Creek” just because I can.
Publish date:
August 30, 2014
grammar, english language

I’m a technical writer by day. If you have no idea what that is, you’re in good company. Even my own brother had to ask me, “What the hell do you do again?” when he was in town visiting recently.

I told him I write user documentation for software -– which I’ve been doing for the better part of the past seven-and-a-half years since graduating college, and he was like, “Is that fun?” Yes, man, it is a freaking blast. I get to spend time writing a ton of instructions that people don’t read. My goal was to write board-game instructions or questions for Jeopardy and/or Trivial Pursuit, but whatever, life.

But on the flip side, as far as writing goes, my career pays OK. I can’t really complain, since I get to write every day and make a decent living. I’m also a freelance writer and editor on the side, which is awesome because I get to pick my projects –- and I pick ones that are way more fun than software documentation.

One of the coolest parts of being a writer and editor who is obsessed with the English language is that family, friends, and coworkers come to me often to ask questions about spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation. And no fewer than six people sent this video to me within three days of it being released:

I love a good parody. Also, the annoyingly catchy “Blurred Lines” minus its offensive lyrics is a win.

Sometimes, being consulted as the expert is irritating, like when I’m in the middle of lunch, or taking a BuzzFeed quiz, or reading this book about why I should be less of an asshole. But mostly it’s flattering, because my I love feeling useful and I really do love the construction of the English language -– especially when it comes to spelling and punctuation.

My favorite punctuation mark is the hyphen (not to be mistaken for the em-dash or en-dash). I can’t really say why, except for the fact that not many people seem to really understand how to use it, but it seems to rile them up anyway.

I get argued with a lot about hyphens, and I’ll even go so far as to admit I disagree with the AP Stylebook, which says to use hyphens to link modifying words together only when not doing so causes confusion. This poses a few issues for me -– the main ones being that 1.) I’m a fan of consistency over feeling-of-the-moment rules, and 2.) No one person can really say what is confusing and what isn’t. It’s kind of like deciding to use the Oxford comma when you “feel like it” which, in its inconsistent glory, defeats the end goal of clarity.

The reason punctuation exists in the first place is to create a standard that makes language clearer. Someone may be just learning English, for example, and the difference between “chocolate chip cookie” and “chocolate-chip cookie” could be a huge one, even though it's not to you and me and the arrogant English-is-my-first-language AP Stylebook follower.

In summary, the hyphen is a friend and not a foe, and it’s possible for us all to use it in harmony.

So let’s discuss the ins and outs of this beautiful yet misunderstood punctuation mark in terms of when it’s being used as a modifier.

Hyphens are used to string together multiple adjectives that, when used together, describe a noun when preceding it in a sentence. These linked-together modifiers are called compound modifiers.

Here are some examples of what I mean, using characters from “Dawson’s Creek” just because I can.

EXAMPLE 1: Joey wore light-blue overalls yesterday.

A hyphen is needed here because the two adjectives together -- "light” and “blue” -– describe the single color of the overalls. Without the hyphen (or if there was a comma instead of a hyphen), Joey wore non-heavy blue overalls. This still technically makes sense, but has a completely different meaning.

EXAMPLE 2: Pacey had a blue-cheese-stuffed burger for lunch.

Notice this doesn’t say a “blue cheese-stuffed burger,” which would be a cheese-stuffed burger that’s blue in color. Gross.

You might be tempted to omit one of the hyphens here because OMG TOO MANY. Don’t do it –- those three words work together, and together ONLY, to describe that burger. If you must, reword (e.g., “For lunch, Pacey had a burger stuffed with blue cheese"), but don’t abuse Pacey’s intestines by eliminating necessary punctuation. He remembers everything.

EXAMPLE 3: Pacey deserves better than Andie, who is a blonde-haired, good-for-nothing cheater.

This one is fun! It comprises two separate sets of compound adjectives that describe the noun (“cheater”) -– and “blonde-haired” describes the rest of the sentence, which is why it’s on its own.

This example also insults Andie, which is a bonus. Who cheats on the man who remembers everything!?

EXAMPLE 4: Forever alone, Dawson gazed up at the clear night sky.

No hyphen is needed here, since the word “clear” by itself is describing the entire rest of the sentence (“night sky”). It’s important to understand the difference between multiple stand-alone adjectives like this and multiple words that come together to form a single modifier, like in the other examples.

EXAMPLE 5: Mitch’s ice-cream adventure ended poorly.

Along with summarizing the most useless and stupidest television death in history, this example showcases the whole “But ice cream is such a common thing that you should know what that means!” thing the same as “chocolate-chip cookie.” Nope -– our minds are still wired to expect a noun to come after the first descriptor (or, in this case, to expect a verb, since “ice” when used by itself is usually a noun). This is not to be confused with using “ice cream” as a stand-alone noun. So, for example: “Mitch was murdered by ice cream” would also be correct (and funnier).

Hyphens are not needed in the following special cases:

• A proper noun that is being used as a compound adjective, as in “New York minute” and “New Orleans-style crab cake.” In the latter example, “style” isn’t part of the proper noun, so you do need a hyphen in that location.

• After an adverb/-ly word, as in “Jen rejected a completely smitten Henry.” This is because adverbs, by definition, say, “FYI, I’M ABOUT TO MODIFY THE SHIZ OUT OF SOMETHING!”

What do you think, xojane? Do you have an opinion about hyphens/compound modifiers? Am I guilty of blasphemy for going against the AP Stylebook? If I wrote an article about the Oxford comma, would you read it? Do I need to get a life?