Friday, September 14, 2012

Stump a Grammar Snob, Hyphens

Before I self-published a book, I was very confident in my grammar and spelling. Yep, I knew my stuff. But when it was time to put my baby out there for the world, I learned some humility. No one knows all the rules. And those who think they do, really don’t.

And, I’m sure you know this, not everyone agrees. But I’m not talking stuff like Oxford commas. I’m talking more esoteric grammar. BTW, if you are not a grammar fanatic, you should probably stop reading now. You’ll be bored silly. But if nothing gives you greater delight than learning some obscure grammar rule, read on, baby, this one’s for you.

Hyphens. This rule should be pretty straightforward. Right? Just look up any word in the dictionary and you’ll know if the word is hyphenated. Easy-peasy. But what about hyphens and compound modifiers? If they come before the noun, hyphenated them. If they come after the noun, don’t. Also easy. But what if it’s an adverb-adjective combo like “freshly cut grass.” Hyphen or no hyphen?

After exhaustive research, most (though not all) experts agree that you use a hyphen. Except, with –ly adverbs preceding adjectives that together precede nouns. In other words, “freshly cut grass,” not freshly-cut grass. BTW, the Chicago Manual of Style says the reason we don’t use a hyphen there is “ambiguity is virtually impossible.” Of course.

Now you know.


  1. The Chicago Manual of Style is a must read for all who self-edit, and of course for editors! I'm a bit of a grammar junkie too.

  2. You realize this is now going to make me immensely paranoid when thinking about hyphen usage, right?

  3. Good to know. And yes, I get positively giddy over this kinda stuff. The one that confuses me a bit is quotation marks. I know (I THINK I know)the common American usage is to always put the punctuation mark inside the quotation mark, but sometimes, it makes more sense to me to put it outside. As in: He thought the cheese looked a little "off". I think that's actually how the British do it, and I prefer it. Or am I missing something?

  4. Ugh. even when you have a publisher "house styles" differ and can drive you crazy too.

  5. I didn't know that about hyphens. I've been confused by their use, but hadn't known the answer until now!