Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 3}

In part one of this series, we introduced hyphenated compound adjectives, and discussed the historical use of hyphens, the dehyphenation trend, and general rules.  In part two we covered the exceptions to the rules.  In this last post in the series, we’ll cover ideas that can help determine whether or not to use a hyphen.


Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 3}Logical Hyphen Usage

Are you ready to throw up your hands in despair by now? Tired of the disagreements and discrepancies? See if this sounds familiar:

Use the hyphen to divide certain compound words. No rule can be given by which to determine when compounded words use the hyphen. Only custom determines.

Practical Grammar and Composition by Thomas Wood

But perhaps things aren’t all that bad. A writer has too much to think about without spending his life running for the dictionary at every other sentence to figure out what fits the rule and what is an exception. Perhaps there is some other way we can figure out when we need to hyphenate compound adjectives and when we don’t.

When it comes to hyphenation, all agree on one thing:

If the reader might misunderstand the meaning of the phrase, use the necessary punctuation to prevent such a mishap.

With this point settled, let’s see if we can figure out a way to handle the other cases.

Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 3}The best way to decide whether or not to use the hyphen is to pull the phrase or sentence apart. Make sure you understand the grammatical function of each word. Do they work together to make a single thought, or is one word modifying another? Diagram the sentence. Does it make sense?

Grammar Workshop: Hyphenated Compounds {Part 3}This exercise can help make hyphenation very clear. One suddenly sees why a man eating shark and a man-eating shark are two different things. The exceptions are easy to sort out, adverb/adjective combinations are no longer confusing, and you may even be tempted to break with convention in some cases!

So the next time you run up against a compound adjective of doubtful status, stop and diagram the sentence. Think through the decision to hyphenate or not.

  • What makes your meaning clear?
  • What fits best with the grammatical purpose of the phrase?

Hyphenating compound adjectives has never been so easy!


Parentheses, dashes, hyphens and all other marks are best learned when a child develops need for them.  None of these are used, or needed, in the children’s samples in the writing scale, and time spent learning about them in language books probably is wasted time.

Dr. Ruth Beechick, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully

Additional Resources

Mechanics — Punctuation — Hyphens
Exercises from Daily Grammar.