Advanced hyphenation

“Are the hyphens in this sentence correct?” a colleague asked me recently: “The couple moved in to the beautiful 175-luxury apartment-home community just two weeks after it opened.”

Hyphens are often intuitive. People who’ve spent exactly zero minutes of their lives reading about hyphen rules tend to get right terms like “a good-looking car” or “a cloud-filled sky” without even thinking about them.

Other times, hyphens aren’t so clear. That’s especially true for compounds with more than two words, for example when you have “175” and “luxury” and “apartment” and “home” all modifying a single noun: “community.”

Luckily, with some hyphenation basics under your belt, you can make good choices in every situation.

The basic principle: Hyphenate words that work together to modify another word that follows. That is, words that team up to form an adjective, describing a noun. Or words that work together to form an adverb, describing a verb or an adjective.

Compare: “I saw a dog eating lobster” and “I saw a dog-eating lobster.” In the first one, “dog” isn’t part of an adjective. It’s the object of the verb “saw,” working as a plain-old noun. What did you see? A dog, and it was eating lobster.

But in “I saw a dog-eating lobster,” you didn’t see a dog at all. You saw a crustacean. Its tendency to eat canines is merely descriptive.

This is what hyphens do: prevent confusion. They help make it clear which part of a word cluster is the object or subject by sort of sequestering all the other words that could be mistaken for the object or subject.

In the jargon, we say hyphens connect “compound modifiers.” Adjectives and adverbs modify other words, so they’re modifiers, and when you string words together with hyphens, the result is a compound.

Here's my recent column explaining why I used three hyphens to make "175-luxury-apartment-home" a single compound.

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