I spotted a book called Grammar For Grown-Ups a while back, and, figuring that I’m well on the way towards meeting the required criterion, I decided to give it a whirl. And it’s already paid off!
Hyphens are one of those nuisance areas of punctuation, because sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong – but often there’s a sort of grey, squishy area of neither right nor wrong (or should that be neither-right-nor-wrong? I’m only on Chapter 1 so I’m not sure yet.)
Where was I? Oh yes. Even literary giants like me still need to brush up on the technical side of writing occasionally, and I came across this useful tip for deciding whether or not a hyphen is needed. It’s to do with compound adjectives. For example free-range eggs is hyphenated to show that something called ‘range eggs’ – if there were such a thing – aren’t being given away.
The idea is to see if you could put ‘and’ in between the adjectives. ‘Free and range eggs’ doesn’t make sense, so it’s a compound adjective and needs a hyphen. Twelve-inch rulers doesn’t work as ‘twelve and inch rulers”, and without the hyphen you could even be referring to twelve rulers that are an inch long. The fact that probably no such thing exist isn’t the point, and In some and probably most cases (stainless steel ruler, man eating tiger) you will make your reader pause, however momentarily, to compute your true meaning – something all writers should want to avoid! Seeing if it works with ‘and’ inserted helps to put both your mind and the reader’s at rest.