To hyphen or not to hyphen

Yes! My evil plot to confuse my clients is working. Sometimes I hyphenate words like toll-free, mail-order and tax-free. And sometimes I don’t. Am I crazy? Did I skip my coffee this morning? Did I get up on the wrong side of the bed? No. I think not.

As if grammar isn’t tough enough, the fact is sometimes it’s appropriate to hyphenate such words and sometimes it isn’t. But, this one’s not as hard as you think. Here’s the rule: (Are you ready for this?)

When used as an adjective, you hyphenate. When you don’t use it as an adjective, don’t hyphenate it. For example, if you say “Call us toll free at the number below,” you don’t hyphenate because “toll free” is not used as an adjective. But, if you say, “Call us at the toll-free number below,” you hyphenate because you’ve used it as an adjective to modify the noun “number.” Get it?

Here are some general hyphenation rules to remember:

Do hyphen:

  • Compound words

Examples: self-impose; able-bodied; African-American

  • Word modifiers when used before the noun (adjective form)

Examples: mail-order service; tax-free dollars; 30-day period; toll-free number; up-to-date immunizations

  • When prefix ends with same letter that suffix begins

Examples: pre-enrollment; anti-inflammatory; post-traumatic; non-negotiated

  • When suffix is a proper noun

Examples: pre-Columbian; anti-American

Note: In headlines and titles, capitalize the word after a hyphen. For example, A Guide to Choosing Long-Term Convalescence.

Do NOT hyphen:

  • Word modifiers when used after the noun or similar phrases when not used as an adjective

Examples: (Compare with word modifiers’ bullet above) delivered by mail order; dollars are tax free; period of 30 days; call us toll free; immunizations are up to date

  • Do not use hyphens with two- or three-word modifiers when the first word of the modifier ends in –ly. For example, wholly owned subsidiary.
  • When prefix ends with a different letter than suffix begins

Examples: pretax; coauthor; nonparticipating; postpartum

Now go forth and hyphenate! (Or don’t.)

Written by Jeanette Juryea

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