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The hyphen (-)

It was exciting to see that some of you took the suggestions on equation grammar to heart. What might even be closer to your heart is the hyphen (-).

Ah, the hyphen, derived from the Greek word that literally translates to “under one.” Those who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding know that the father tries to connect every word to its “Greek origin”--even if the word itself isn’t Greek (like “kimono”). Be rest assured, though, even with those pesky Romans, the meaning still rings true. In fact, it was those “pesky Romans” who changed the original hyphen (which had been a “tie mark”) to the hyphen we know and love today.

History and pop culture aside, the hyphen is one of the most useful little tools we’ve got as writers and editors. Other than Windex, that is.

As you can imagine, the hyphen is very easily overused...and misused. In an attempt to not send you to sleep with extraneous detail, we are going to cover the cases you will most often need for our type of editing.


(1) Hyphens with compound modifiers, before the noun.

Here’s an example: “He likes hot-chocolate-flavored ice cream.”

Without the hyphen, “He likes hot chocolate flavored ice cream.” This makes no sense: is the ice What universe allows for hot ice cream?

There are times when the hyphen isn’t necessary for these before-the-noun compound modifiers. (See what we did there?) This is the case when the first modifier ends in “-ly.” For example, “The carefully placed shoebox.” There’s no need for a hyphen there. You also do not need hyphens for common compound modifiers, like “middle school teacher” or “senior vice president.” (Because...well, that’d just get irritating and fast.)

Note, also, how we say before the noun. Rarely, if ever, do you do this type of hyphenation after the noun. To introduce some numbers into the mix, let’s look at this example:

“The 7-year-old boy” (compound modifier before the noun)

“The boy who’s 7 years old” (compound modifier after the noun)

The same goes for SCIENCE!

“a 10-cm-long beaker” vs. “a beaker 10 cm in length”

Without the hyphen in the first one, you’d get, “a 10 cm long beaker.” Do you see how that messes with the clarity?

(2) “Suspended” hyphens

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi film: “Sir, we tried to escape but the Suspended Hyphens destroyed our entire galactic fleet!” (Or, at the very least, it’d be a great name for a really nerdy sports team or a rock band.)

These don’t come up often, but in our line of work, you might come across them more than your average editor. Especially in the methods section. Everyone’s favorite section.

Here’s an example: “The 6- and 7-year-old children tore up the playground.”

Sounds violent, but it’s correct.

Here’s another one: “We broke up the participants into 3-, 4-, and 5-person groups.”


Of course, there are many more ways to use hyphens, some more technical than others. However, this is a good primer for you to continue your quest towards truth, the Holy Grail, and (yes) even a cleaner manuscript.

(Please retain the reference in reprint:

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