To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

When our two daughters, Maria and Katrina, were about nine and seven years old, they took gymnastics classes at a studio about 20 minutes from our home. As we drove to that studio each week, we passed a large, metal building with a sign out front that read “Hot Tub Factory.” As we passed the sign, I always asked the girls the same question: “Is that a ‘Tub Factoryor is it a ‘ Factory?’”

Initially, the girls showed some interest in the distinction between the two options, but after a while, they tired of my question and simply said, “Whatever.” As a writing instructor, however, I am always evaluating not only the way in which people arrange words but also how they punctuate those words. In this case, the answer to my question centered on whether that sign needed a comma or a hyphen.

A hyphen is a short horizontal line that is located on the top row of the keyboard between the zero and the equal sign. Most people use the hyphen without even thinking when they write words such as “fifty-one” or “mother-in-law.” Generally, you need to hyphenate all the numbers from “twenty-one” to “ninety-nine” and all fractions such as “one-fourth” or “two-thirds.” Similarly, some words such as “good-bye, vice-president, and merry-go-round” always require a hyphen, and you should check your dictionary if you’re unsure whether a hyphen is needed.

In other cases, though, the use of a hyphen is determined by what you’re trying to express. For instance, if you’re using two or more words to describe an additional word, you typically need a hyphen. Let’s say you’re looking to buy a car that doesn’t have much mileage on it; in that case, you might post a request for a “little-used car.” If, however, you want to buy a small car, such as a Volkswagen, but you don’t want the latest model, you need a comma rather than a hyphen to advertise for a “little, used car.”

Photo by Martin Katler on Unsplash

Looking at the two choices, you have to ask yourself if you need a hyphenated, compound adjective (“little-used” car) or two separate adjectives separated by a comma (“little, used” car). As you do so, though, keep in mind the following rules:

● If one of the words in question is the word “very” or an adverb that ends in the letters “-ly,” you do not need a hyphen (“very old car” or “lightly used car”).

● If your adjectives follow the noun, you also do not need a hyphen (“I’m seeking a car (noun) that is little used”).

So returning to our original example, did the owners of that metal building need a hyphen on their sign out front? Most likely, they did. After all, if they were merely making tubs, why would they want to advertise to the world that the building was hot inside (“Hot, Tub Factory”)? On the other hand, if they specialized in making hot tubs, the hyphen would make that piece of knowledge more obvious (“Hot-Tub Factory”).

Or, as my two daughters might say, “Whatever.”

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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