How to Use Hyphens Correctly in Business Grammar
Argh! I just can’t stand it anymore! I’ve been doing this purple-bracelet “stop complaining” exercise for almost three weeks now (and am on my record 5th day of not complaining), but I can’t hold it in any longer because every time I look at the half inch of rubber encircling my wrist I want to gouge a little hyphen between “Complaint” and “Free.”
It’s “A Complaint-Free World,” people, not “A Complaint Free World”!
Oh, the irony of complaining about the “complaint free” bracelet. But really!
Hyphens are very complicated punctuation marks. I agree with Grammar Girl’s recommendation to check a dictionary and style guide when possible to ensure you're using the right type of dash. When it’s not, fall back on this baseline rule:
Hyphenate compound adjectives when they come before a noun, and don’t hyphenate them when they come after a noun.
Louise illustrated this rule nicely:
Why is this? Here’s my best explanation: hyphens group modifiers together for clarity. Say you have a red brick house. Is it a red house? Yes. Is it a brick house? Yes. Therefore, no hyphen is needed. However, what if you have a “gluten free recipe.” Is it a gluten recipe? No. Is it a free recipe? No. Therefore, a hyphen is needed to group the modifiers together so you know the recipe has no gluten. It’s a gluten-free recipe.
Why then do you not hyphenate after the noun, e.g. “the recipe is gluten free”? The temptation is to throw in extra hyphens just in case, e.g. “the recipe is gluten-free.” But it’s just as bad to over-hyphenate as to under-hyphenate, and it really isn’t necessary. Here’s why: when the modifier comes after the noun, it’s only modifying the one word immediately after it. So we ask ourselves, “What kind of ‘free’ is it?” and the answer is “gluten.” It’s gluten free.
Louise, thanks so much for breaking your complaint-free pledge to clarify this! I say you should gouge that little hyphen into your bracelet, and wear it proudly!
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