Ideally, a hyphen eliminates ambiguity. For example, “re-cover” has a very different meaning than “recover.” The phrase “working class parents” is open to interpretation. (Are the parents working class, or are they class parents who are working?) Add the hyphen, and the meaning of “working-class parents” is clear.
Not every compound word needs a hyphen. How do you decide to add one? There are four guidelines to remember.
- The trend is to eliminate hyphens when possible. As an earlier Rose’s Red Pen noted, the longer a compound word is in use, the more likely it is to lose its hyphen.
- If a compound modifier comes before the noun, it’s generally hyphenated to avoid confusion. Examples: man-eating ant vs. man eating ant
The exceptions are adverbs ending in “ly” and the word “very.”
Examples: quickly memorized poem vs. easy-to-remember poem or very good dessert vs. mouth-watering dessert
- When a compound modifier comes after a noun, it is almost never hyphenated.
Example: less-appreciated music vs. the music was less appreciated.
Of course, there are exceptions. When the compound modifier follows a form of the verb “to be,” it is sometimes hyphenated to avoid misinterpretation. Example: Her statement was thought provoking. Did it provoke thought, or did people think it was provoking? The hyphen in “thought-provoking” clarifies the meaning. Other examples include: “The closet is pitch-dark” and “all the available jobs are full-time.”
- Sometimes a hyphen breaks up double vowels or triple consonants, as in the examples “anti-intellectual” or “shell-like.” The trend is to eliminate those hyphens when possible, as in “reeducate” or “reestablishment.”
To handle hyphens in compound modifiers, keep the four guidelines in mind, find a good reference, and evaluate the sentence for clarity.