Open or Closed

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.

 

  1. 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.”

Example:

“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)

However …

when using  more, most, less, least, and very, these are usually kept open (no hyphen) unless ambiguity threatens.

For example:

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)

Example:

a very much needed job

There is much more to know about hyphens but we don’t want to go on overload.

 

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