Hyphens . . . who on earth came up with this idea?? Grammar rules are supposed to be solid rules, not vague ideas that writers can use when logic applies; but whoever said writers were logical?
Two or more words used as one adjective
The school bus driver started yelling.
Two or more words with a hyphen(s) before a noun
The well-fed child laughed his little head around the floor.
Two words joined as one
The underfed child lay listlessly in the dirt.
So when should I use hyphens?
Most of the time, a sentence’s meaning will be completely clear when the adverbs and adjectives are placed after the noun in a sentence, so hyphens are not required. When adverbs and adjectives are used before the noun, you will probably hyphenate.
The cat was black and white.
The black-and-white cat played with his tail.
“It is never incorrect to hyphenate adjectival compounds before a noun” (CMOS, 7.86).
And when can’t I use hyphens?
If you have an adverb (a word describing an action word) ending in ly matched with an adjective, either before or after the noun.
He was a fascinatingly handsome man.
The man was fascinatingly handsome.
Is there any easy way to remember how this works?
You’ll just have to accept that some compounded words don’t follow the rules. What can you do about this? Buy the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and follow that, although . . . The Chicago Manual of Style will let some originally-hyphenated compounds slide if they are now widely accepted. The CMOS has a style guide for compounds, combining forms, and prefixes at the end of chapter seven.
And so we come back to the original suggestion for when to use hyphens—when it’s logical to do so. Capiche?
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