To Hyphenate or not to Hyphenate

Let’s begin with the answer to the previous post’s “extra for experts.” After a brief lesson on subject-verb agreement, General Grammar shared that the following two examples


are both correct:

1)      The number of registered voters is small.

2)      A number of the voters are using absentee ballots.

Number is the subject of both sentences. So why is the singular verb “is” (#1) and the plural verb “are” (#2) both correct? The answer in this case lies in the choice of article. (Well, actually, the answer lies in The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, p. 852! At least, that is where General Grammar found it.) “As a collective noun, number may take either a singular or a plural verb. It takes the singular verb when it is preceded by the definite article the…. It takes the plural verb when preceded by the indefinite article a.”


In gratitude to the Word Nerds for inviting me to be a regular contributor, I will address a topic requested by one of the Word Nerds: “To hyphenate or not to hyphenate…that is the question!”

Consider the following examples and decide which, if any, contains an unnecessary hyphen.

1)      Administrators and executives should exercise thoughtful decision-making.

2)      Someday, I hope he has to answer for his selfish, worldly-minded schemes.

3)      The organization has spent the last five years crafting its five-year plan.

4)      Beware! That tiny, friendly-looking dog is trained as an attack dog.

5)      The teachers plan activities to enhance decision-making skills in students.

6)      Every athlete receives some amount of athletically-related financial aid.

7)      She is an amazingly-gifted writer.

8)      The cash-strapped organization launched another fund-raising campaign.

9)      Do you have thoroughly-scrambled brains yet?

OK, then…no more examples. Let’s refine our hyphen-using skills!
Examples 1, 6, 7, 9, are wrong…and maybe the latter half of 8! (We’ll save that one for last!)

In general, hyphenate when combining two words to form ONE adjective modifying the noun that immediately follows. From above, the most straightforward examples of this are “five-year” plan, “decision-making” skills, and “cash-strapped” organization. However, if one of the two words is itself an adverb ending in “ly,” then omit the hyphen. This explains why the hyphen is incorrect in 6, 7, and 9. Why not 2 and 4? Because neither worldly nor friendly is an adverb. They are both adjectives that just happen to end in “ly” and are being linked to yet another word to create single modifiers describing schemes and dog, respectively.

Soooo…what is up with the latter half of #8? There is a debate between The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (which indicates that “fund-raising” as an adjective should indeed be hyphenated) and a certain Word Nerd (who happens to be employed in said field and insists that fundraising is never hyphenated). So as not to risk offending one of my blog hosts, General Grammar will not rule on this particular usage. (The Word Nerd in question, at great risk to herself in interrupting the General, felt the need to clarify that her adherence to fundraiser/fundraising with no hyphen comes from the AP Stylebook, which ruled a few years back to get rid of the hyphen in all cases). However, perhaps I should consider purchasing a newer edition of The American Heritage Dictionary since I am behind by several…or I could put it on my Christmas list. How nerd-like is that?


3 thoughts on “To Hyphenate or not to Hyphenate

  1. Judith Starkston says:

    Despite my generally sound skills (no hyphen because generally is an adverb) at all things grammatical, I found this post helpful. Great clarification of the distinctions. And yes, sometimes we need to update our grammar tools. Sigh. How dare they update grammar rules!

  2. Jami Gold says:

    Ooo, very useful. I almost got them all correct, but I forgot about the “adjective that ends in ly” situation. 🙂

  3. […] E. To Hyphenate or not to Hyphenate. Ever find yourself wondering? The Word Nerds Grammar General clarifies all. Even for an old grammar nut like me, I found this illuminating. Link here […]

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