Sunday, October 31, 2010


Last week, I received my first ever copy edits from my editor at Kensington. The good news? No rewrites, only minor tweaking. Whew! The bad news? I discovered I am hyphen challenged. As in every single time I hyphenated a word, the editor took it out.

Now, I knew I was comma challenged. I use too many of the pesky little suckers or not enough, or I put them in the wrong place. But hyphens I thought I understood. Uh uh. Bonk. Wrong.

So, figuring I can’t be the only one with the problem, I thought I’d set out the rules for how and when to use a hyphen. Er. (growling noise)

Here are seven rules for hyphens taken from an article by Heather Marie Kosur at

1. Use a hyphen between certain prefixes and suffixes, i.e., all-inclusive, ex-husband, and president-elect.

2. Use a hyphen in some compound nouns, such as T-shirt and mother-in-law.

3. Use a hyphen to join two or more coequal nouns, i.e. pairs of nouns that are equal in function. For example, actor-director, singer-songwriter.

4. Use a hyphen to join compound noun phrase modifiers that precede a noun especially when (1) adverbs such as better, best or ill modify an adjective, (2) the second word is a present participle or past participle of a verb, and (3) the compound modifier contains a number. For example, ill-equipped mechanic, blue-collar worker, third-floor suite, self-fulfilling prophecy, ballet-hating husband.

5. Use a hyphen to separate words in a phrase that is functioning as a noun phrase modifier that precedes a noun. For example, all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, out-of-this-world experience, over-the-counter medication.

6. Use a hyphen in numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine, or to separate the numerator from the denominator in a fraction, as in one-half and two-thirds.

7. Use a hyphen to avoid confusion. For example, re-sign instead of resign, which have different meanings.

There, clear as mud? You can see why I remain a little confused on the subject.

So, it being Halloween and all, what grammar rules scare you?


Piedmont Writer said...

Clear as mud. What grammar rules scare me? Semi-colons. Oh, and I used a hyphen.

Debra Ann Elliott said...

Me too!

Lisa D. said...

Usually, I'm a grammar ninja-- but I can never remember how to punctuate ellipsis properly. Is it dot space dot space dot space? Or dot,dot,dot? I can never keep it straight.

Heather said...

Great post. I don't know about you but my legal writing training which frowns on the use of hyphens and conjunctions fights against my writing style for fiction. As a result, I am significantly challenged in the hyphen arena, and this blog post was a HUGE help. Thanks!

Carla Swafford said...

Sad to say but all grammar scare the bejesus outta me. But I do try to improve. Thus, I carry around my Grammar For Dummies on trips. I always hope something will sink in.

Jeanie said...

Glad I'm not the only one, guys. Misery loves company, as my mom would say. And the English language IS one of the most difficult, confusing languages in the world. Carla, I like Grammar Girl. She has a way of putting things simply, and provides a rule of thumb to follow!

Louisa Cornell said...

Most grammar rules don't frighten me. However, the file cabinet in my brain that holds all that grammar stuff I used to teach to high school kids? Sometimes it won't open. Sometimes it misfiles stuff and sometimes it falls over and scatters everything on the floor so that I have to pick through it to find what I am looking for!

Cari Hislop said...

I'm semi-colon challenged. Somehow I turned into an over-user; I use them excessively. I now have to go through every sentence and ask myself if it shouldn't actually have a comma...or is that a coma? I can never remember. Like Louise, my brain-files are all over the floor!

At the end of the day, grammar exists to clarifying the written word. There is no 11th commandment that says, Thou shalt write grammatically correct English. Grammar rules are the product of a small group of self-important late Georgian/Victorian pedants who presumed they knew better and whom are preening in their graves as modern pedants decree their word as law. The rules can be helpful, but when they become anal and confusing you know it's time to follow your instinct and write however you feel communicates most clearly your intentions. If that means making your own rules be it!

Love ghost stories? The Daily Telegraph (an English newspaper) is having a short story competition. It has to be 2000 words or less. There isn't any money prize, but all six finalist stories will be published. Here's the address if you're interested!

Jeanie said...

Louisa, ain't getting older a bitch? Sometimes I feel like my brain is made up of Swiss cheese. Cari, thanks for the cool link to the ghost story contest. Good luck to all who enter!

Jeanie said...

Louisa, ain't getting older a bitch? Sometimes I feel like my brain is made up of Swiss cheese. Cari, thanks for the cool link to the ghost story contest. Good luck to all who enter!

Christine said...

Yup, I needed this lesson in hyphen-comma-challenged writer-world.

Cr(&(* did I mess up?

Great post!

Jeanie said...

I suspect my troubles with hyphens are far from over, Christine! Thank goodness for my writer friends and for the internet. A wealth of information at our fingertips.

Stern Rake Studio said...

I tend to use a lot of hyphenated words. While I think I use them correctly, I really appreciate you posting the rules. As for commas, I don't think I use enough of them. In the first creative writing course I took, the teacher had a vendetta against comma splices. (Or is it comma-splices?). So I've been traumatized about using too many. And speaking of remember all English grammar rules, I now have to go look up what a "participle" is...