One problem writers sometimes struggle with is when to use hyphens to join descriptive words. Here are a few examples that show some of the basic rules to guide you in the use of hyphens.
- Sometimes we use an adjective and a noun to describe another noun.
Example: a high-class event.
Without the hyphen we might wonder if it was a class event where everyone got high, or it took place on a mountain or in the penthouse. Did the event only allow the people from one class, such as grade 12?
The hyphen helps to clarify meaning.
The general rule is: hyphenated before but not after a noun, like this:
“a high-class event,” but “the event was high class.”
“a small-town sheriff,” but “the sheriff was from a small town.” (If we wrote it without the hyphen [as in small town sheriff] we might wonder if the sheriff from the town was small).
2. If you use an adjective and a participle, it might look like this:
“a well-dressed woman,” but “the woman was well dressed.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)
“an open-ended question,” but “the question was open ended.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)
3. Adverbs ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective are open, whether before or after a noun. No hyphens.
It was a poorly paid job.
We ate a quickly prepared meal.
4. Adverbs not ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective.
“She got some much-needed dental work,” but “her dental work was much needed.”
“He had the worst-paid job at the plant,” but “his job at the plant was the worst paid one.”
(hyphenated before but not after a noun)
when using more, most, less, least, and very, these are usually kept open (no hyphen) unless ambiguity threatens.
most talented musicians (refers to almost all musicians with talent; the most in number), but the most-talented musicians (the musicians with the most talent).
When the adverb rather than the compound as a whole is modified by another adverb, the entire expression is open.
(from Chicago Manual of Style)
a very much needed job
There is much more to know about hyphens but we don’t want to go on overload.