Have you ever wondered why some words are hyphenated and others aren’t? What is the logic behind the following?

  • lifeguard (one word)
  • sports car (two words)
  • post-season (hyphenated word)

I’ve learned the hard way that there is no good reason.

One rule is that if two or more words modify the same noun and don’t need a comma, they should be hyphenated.

  • soft-center candy
  • ice-cold water
  • jam-and-jelly sandwich

This is probably the best rule and will get you through most decisions with flying colors.

Some hyphens are part of the name to show a link:

  • Texas-Houston Department of Orthopedic Surgery
  • obstetrics-gynecology

Some are broken hyphens:

  • four- or eight- week rotations
  • six-  and seven-year-olds
  • eight-year-old boy

Some are hyphenated even when no noun follows:

  • face-to-face
  • one-on-one
  • tag-alongs

Most hyphenated words will eventually merge into one word with use unless the letters would make it hard to pronounce or read the combination.

So what’s the rule? Read well-edited publications, such as The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, or the National Geographic. Notice when hyphens are used and store that use away somewhere. The more you read, the more you’ll see differences in the way hyphens are used. When you’re not sure, lean on the usage of the finest current magazines in the English language.

Or, just for fun, go to the Owl Online Writing Lab. Once you’ve studied what they have to say about hyphens, look around at other topics. It’s a good site, all in all. It should be, coming from Purdue…

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