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The Much-Needed Hyphen and Some Largely Unknown Exceptions

English is a language where adjectives and other descriptive words usually come before the noun instead of after. So if there is more than one descriptive word in a phrase, sometimes it’s hard to understand which words go together. For example, take the phrase “small appliance store.” Does that mean an appliance store that is small? Or a store that sells small appliances? Add a hyphen, and the confusion is gone: small-appliance store. That little dash helps us understand which words are the modifiers and which words are being modified.

Here are some examples of hyphenated phrases:

  • a high-quality plastic
  • my much-improved health
  • his four-year-old son
  • the bug-filled garden
  • an open-minded person

In each of these, the hyphen tells us that the two words together modify the noun that follows.

But don’t go hyphenating every group of words that modifies a noun, because there are at least three important exceptions. The first exception is adverbs ending in -ly. Because the following phrases use adverbs that end in –ly, they don’t need hyphens:

  • the sadly neglected yard
  • a critically acclaimed book
  • your highly appreciated contribution
  • my completely uneventful morning
  • our embarrassingly late proposal

Why don’t these phrases need hyphens? Because the purpose of hyphens is to prevent misunderstandings about what’s modifying what. Since an adverb ending in -ly almost always modifies the word that follows, misunderstanding these phrases is very unlikely, and the hyphen isn’t needed.

A second exception: phrases containing a proper noun. We don’t put a hyphen in “United Kingdom imports” because it’s already clear from the capitalization that “United Kingdom” is a unified group of words. Here are some other examples of proper noun phrases modifying nouns.

  • three Elton John albums
  • any US Open tickets
  • various Native American languages

Finally, sometimes a hyphen is unnecessary simply because the phrase is so common that it’s already become one accepted word! A dictionary can help you find out if this is the case. For example:

  • these halfhearted efforts
  • my motormouthed friend
  • an underdeveloped idea

Correct use of hyphens will improve your writing by making it easier for readers to understand. Just keep in mind the few exceptions to the rule, and you’ll do great. And of course, we’re always here to help you.

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