The Cocktail-Party Guide to Hyphens

Hyphenation can seem like the editor’s party trick. A party trick is something that few people know how to do, and while it’s not that important to most people, it’s always impressive to see someone pull it off. You know, like tying a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue.

But there are three reasons that hyphenation is more than a party trick.

The first reason is that sometimes hyphenation matters quite a bit for clarity: the difference between twenty foot-long hot dogs and twenty-foot-long hot dogs is the difference between a team lunch and a publicity stunt.

The second reason is that—as you know, if you’re an editor—editors aren’t always sure where to put a hyphen either. They’re constantly looking it up to be sure, usually someplace like the hyphenation chart in The Chicago Manual of Style (7.89). And they’re making decisions based on their best judgment and filling style sheets with those decisions. (You know how about half of all dust is supposedly bits of insects? Well, about half of any style sheet is hyphenation decisions.)

The third reason is that, while hyphens do have a place at a cocktail party, it’s not as a knotted cherry stem. It’s as a drink charm.

You know what a drink charm is, right? There was a whole vogue for them a while ago. They’re those fussy but pretty little things you put on a glass to indicate whose it is. Drink charms were invented because there was an obvious need for them: sometimes you’re just not sure who’s with what drink. This is especially true if everyone is drinking things that look similar. They’re less necessary when there’s less risk of confusion—if you’re having a pint of IPA and I’m having a Negroni, it’s pretty clear whose is whose. And while you may occasionally need to say “Whose gin and tonic am I about to move?” you won’t need to ask who’s with the Pabst Blue Ribbon if the only person you know who ever drinks it is that Josh dude.

It’s the same deal for hyphens. In theory, we could get by without them (some people seem to), but they sure do prevent a lot of confusion in some places. In other places, you don’t need them because no confusion is possible, but either way, they have a certain charm.

Hyphenate When Clarity Demands

When you’re pouring champagne for everyone, it’s a good idea to use the drink charms, because the glasses all look the same, and squinting to see whose lipstick on which glass is just not good. Likewise, there are cases where the lack of a hyphen makes a big difference. You want to know if the decorator is asking for six foot-tall sculptures or six-foot-tall sculptures; you want to know if “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” is supposed to be in electric-yellow letters or electric yellow letters.

Hyphenate When Tradition Dictates

Some things are hard to get confused about but you hyphenate them anyway because they’re in the position where you usually hyphenate things. You can easily understand a forty ounce bottle, and you know everyone else can too, but you make it a forty-ounce bottle just because you know you shouldn’t leave it open—as CMOS says (7.85), “it is never incorrect to hyphenate adjectival compounds before a noun.” Likewise, sometimes you put a common prefix or suffix on a word that you’re not used to seeing it on, and since you’re a bit iffy about it, you use a hyphen: a post-race drink rather than a postrace drink.

Don’t Hyphenate When the Dictionary Says Not To

Some people just don’t like drink charms, and that’s all there is to it. Likewise, some established compounds just don’t get hyphens. Cabernet sauvignon is not cabernet-sauvignon, and if a wine is cabernet sauvignon blended with something else, but you don’t know if it’s merlot or cabernet franc, you call it a cabernet sauvignon blend and definitely not a cabernet-sauvignon blend.

There are also cases that used to get a hyphen but you just don’t bother anymore. Sometimes it becomes a fixed open compound—ice cream—but much of the time, the two get merged together as one, inseparable: email, cookbook, courthouse. And if you’re not sure, you look it up.

Don’t Hyphenate When You Don’t Need To

There are times where a hyphen is not used because it’s definitely not needed. It’s like Josh’s PBR: there’s no mistake who it belongs to. You may write an extra-dry martini because an extra dry martini can be read as “one more dry martini,” but you write the martini is extra dry because it’s perfectly clear (just like the martini). And you may write an all-night-long party, but you write the party goes all night long. Likewise, adverbs followed by adjectives don’t need hyphens, because they can’t not be modifying the adjective after them: a really tired bartender; a slowly wilting aspidistra.

Does This All Start to Lose Its Charm?

Hyphenation is a lot to keep track of—there are at least 17 different kinds of hyphens to keep in mind! And while Chicago has a section of guidance (7.81 to 7.89), including the handy-but-long lookup table at 7.89, it can be a lot of work to check it whenever you’re not absolutely sure. This is where PerfectIt™ for Microsoft Word comes in. When you run PerfectIt on your documents, it not only checks whether or not you’ve been consistent in your hyphenation, it can also tell you what The Chicago Manual of Style suggests, along with the relevant guidance. You need to link your PerfectIt account to a CMOS Online subscription to access that feature, but it’s definitely worth considering if you’re working with CMOS, as it’s a big time-saver versus continually cross-referencing with the table. Read here to find out more.

For further useful advice on hyphenation checks, see the CMOS Shop Talk blog.

Check hyphenation automatically with PerfectIt