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04/02/01: Hyphenated Adjectives

Several of our newsletter subscribers have written to ask us to address the use of hyphens like the ones in the following six sentences. Can you tell which sentences correctly employ the hyphen?

1. The injured boy is five-years-of-age.

2. The five-year-old boy was injured.

3. The injured man is twenty-five years old.

4. I hope you can come up with an easy-to-remember rule to help me know when to use the hyphen.

5. I hope you can come up with a rule that is easy-to-remember.

6. The four-year-old ran to the bramble-covered fence rail, where she charmed a tough, too-tall-to-tango hombre.

Hyphens are used correctly in sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6.

The hyphens are unnecessary in sentence 1 because the phrase “five years of age” is not being used as a single adjective.

In sentence 2, however, the phrase “five-year-old” is being used as a single descriptor for the noun “boy.” Not one of the words in that phrase would work alone; that is, he is not a “five boy,” a “year boy,” or an “old boy.” We have to pull all those words together to form a single adjective.

The hyphen in sentence 3 is correct because we always use a hyphen in compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine.

(NOTE: Although other style manuals differ, the Chicago Manual of Style advises us to spell out numbers that can be written in three words or fewer. Thus, we have spelled out “twenty-five” rather than using the numeral “25.” Numerals are to be used, however, in reference to page numbers, section numbers, item numbers, and the like, such as when we refer to “sentence 2,” above.)

The difference between sentences 4 and 5 is similar to the difference between sentences 1 and 2: In sentence 4, “easy-to-remember” is being used as a single descriptor in front of the noun “rule.” In sentence 5, however, the description “easy to remember” follows the noun and should not be hyphenated.

Sentence 6 correctly hyphenates “four-year-old” because that phrase modifies the elliptical noun “boy.” That is, although we do not see the word “boy” in the sentence, it is nonetheless part of the construction. Thus, “four-year-old” is hyphenated as a multiword, single descriptor preceding a noun.

The descriptions “too-tall-to-tango” and “bramble-covered” are also correctly hyphenated in sentence 6 because they precede the nouns they modify. Notice that we did not include the word “tough” in the hyphenated phrase “too-tall-to-tango” because it is a separate adjective. “Too-tall-to-tango” consists of four words but functions as a single descriptor.

Keep in mind, though, that we never use a hyphen between an -ly adverb + adjective combination in front of a noun or pronoun. Here are examples with the -ly adverb + adjective constructions:

She was a highly motivated employee.

Some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year were not honored at the Academy Awards ceremony.

The person who just boarded our bus is a nationally known scientist.

Sometimes we must use a hanging hyphen to indicate that we have two hyphenated adjectives preceding a noun:

The course covered nineteeth- and twentieth-century literature.

Two final points about using the hyphen:

First, we never put a space before or after one (except, as we just pointed out, in the case of a hanging hyphen). Second, we cannot use a slash in place of a hyphen. Slashes indicate an either/or relationship between a pair of words, while the hyphen suggests a connection between the two words. We could write about the value of “parent-child interaction” but not of “parent/child interaction.” The slash in the latter renders the meaning “parent OR child” and would be illogical in this context.

Hyphens are widely misused by writers, but this tip covers only one kind of hyphen-related usage problem. We will deal with other hyphen issues (as well as with en dashes and em dashes) in future tips.

TEST YOURSELF: Where do we need hyphens in the following sentences? Some sentences may be correct.

1. Schools are often categorized according to the number of free and reduced lunch students enrolled.

2. Highly motivated working parents find enriching after school programs for their children.

3. Fred was applauded for his behind the scenes efforts to raise the capital necessary to launch the company.

4. Our long range plan included several company specific marketing strategies.

5. Home based educational services are provided to children on a case by case basis.

6. The play was well-rehearsed by a troupe of extremely-professional actors.

ANSWERS

1. Schools are often categorized according to the number of free- and reduced-lunch students enrolled.

2. Highly motivated working parents find enriching after-school programs for their children.

3. Fred was applauded for his behind-the-scenes efforts to raise the capital necessary to launch the company.

4. Our long-range plan included several company-specific marketing strategies.

5. Home-based educational services are provided to children on a case-by-case basis.

6. The play was well-rehearsed by a troupe of extremely professional actors. [Hyphen was deleted after "extremely."]


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