The Copy Corner: When do you hyphenate two or more words?

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When is casual writing okay?

Generally, you hyphenate a phrase when it’s modifying another word and appears before the word it is modifying. These hyphenated phrases are called compound modifiers.

For example, if you are referencing two people who are in a relationship but live on different sides of the country, you would call that a long-distance relationship. Long-distance is hyphenated because it is modifying relationship.

Consider another example: The thirty-minute class ended early. Thirty-minute modifies class and comes before the word so you hyphenate it. However, if you say, “The class, which usually lasted thirty minutes, ended early,” you wouldn’t hyphenate anything because the phrase modifying the class comes after the word.

When do I use more than one hyphen?

The examples above combine only two words and use a single hyphen. Pretty simple. Where some people trip up is when hyphenating more than two words.

Essentially, just like with two-word phrases, you use multiple hyphens when an entire phrase is modifying another word and appears before the word being modified. The table below illustrates when words and phrases need multiple hyphens and when these words can stand on their own.

Phrases

When a Phrase Become a Compound Modifier

When Words in a Phrase Stand on Their Own

out-of-court vs. out of court

We reached an out-of-court settlement. (out-of-court modifies and appears before settlement; therefore, we hyphenate it)

We reached a settlement out of court. (out of court appears after settlement, so the words stand alone)

out-of-pocket vs. out of pocket

You may have some out-of-pocket costs. (out-of-pocket modifies and appears before costs)

You must pay these costs out of pocket. (out of pocket appears after costs, so the words stand alone)

two-year-old vs. two years old

Jake is a two-year-old boy. (two-year-old , modifies and appears before boy)

The boy was two years old. (two years old appears after boy, so the words stand alone)

third-party vs. third party

He filed a third-party claim. (third-party modifies and appears before claim)

He filed a claim against a third party. (third party appears after claim, so the words stand alone)

over-the-counter vs. over the counter

The drug is an over-the-counter medication. (over-the-counter modifies and appears before medications)

The medication is available over the counter. (over the counter comes after medication, so the words stand alone)

Stacked Modifiers: How many hyphens is too many?

Try to keep your compound modifiers to no more than three words. Otherwise, you are teetering on the verge of an unwieldy stacked modifier.

A stacked modifier is simply a logjam of modifiers that appear before a noun or verb. They can be distracting or confusing, ultimately clouding your message. Here is an example:

  • I had a run-around-town-like-I-was-a-crazy-person day.

And stacked modifiers don’t have to be compound modifiers. The next example is from the movie Christmas Vacation. The protagonist, Clark Griswold, uses compound modifiers and single-word modifiers to describe his boss:

  • …I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless…

And several other modifiers we won’t repeat on a wholesome blog like Copy Corner.

Fixing a stacked modifier is usually easy. In the first example, we can simply rewrite the sentence: I was running around town like a crazy person all day.

And to fix Clark’s stacked modifier…well, on second thought, I won’t. It’s perfect. I think in this case the stacked modifier, used comedically, illustrates Clark’s frantic mindset. But unless you are writing fiction, you probably don’t want to convey frantic in your writing, so avoid the stacked modifier.

Why do I have to hyphenate modifiers?

Why can’t you just leave a phrase without hyphens? No one will notice, right? In some cases, yes. However, consider the following:

  • Sixty four year old males

Am I discussing sixty-four-year-old males, sixty four-year-old males, or sixty-four year-old males? The world may never know.

Consider another:

  • Flesh eating bacteria

Am I discussing flesh that is eating bacteria or bacteria that is eating flesh? This could lead to a lot of confusion.

When should I not hyphenate?

Do not include the noun being modified in the compound modifier.

We now know you hyphenate out-of-pocket if you place the phrase before costs. But some might take this thinking too far and include costs (the noun being modified) in the compound modifier, writing out-of-pocket-costs. It’s never correct to add the noun being modified into the compound modifier.

Do not hyphenate words not meant to be hyphenated.

In some cases, people hyphenate words and phrases that don’t need a hyphen. Some common examples of wrongly hyphenated words and phrases include:

  • Payday (never pay-day)
  • Comic book (never comic-book)

Do not hyphenate if one of the modifiers ends in -ly.

Let’s look at a sentence used a few lines up:

  • Some common examples of wrongly hyphenated words and phrases include:

In this case, wrongly hyphenated does not get a hyphen because wrongly ends in -ly. It is clear the word following an adverb ending in -ly is a modifier, not the noun being modified. The same rule applies to the adverb very.

Can I use multiple compound modifiers in a row?

Have you ever had to use several compound modifiers in a row, each ending in the same modifier? Here’s an example:

  • He suffered first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree burns.

In cases like this, you can leave off the final modifier until you get to the final compound modifier.

  • He suffered first-, second-, and third-degree burns.
  • He has to write a 500- to 1,000-word essay.

Can hyphenating words affect search engine results?

This is something I always wondered. If I write out-of-court settlement but most people type out of court settlement into Google, will correctly hyphenating the compound modifier hold me back in the search results?

I had a few questions about this:

Why do hyphenated keywords not show up in keyword research tools?

I noticed that when I search a hyphenated keyword in SEMrush, I wouldn’t get many, if any results. I asked Jason Hennessey, Chief Search Officer of Hennessey Consulting, about this.

“SEMrush only measures keywords that have a search volume of 10+ per month,” Hennessey explained, “so that’s why you don’t see keywords that are hyphenated in there.”

That is to say, people don’t use hyphens in their search queries, so hyphenated keywords usually don’t show up in your keyword research.

Will using a hyphenated keyword affect where my page ranks?

This question I brought to Jordan Kasteler, SEO Director of Hennessey Consulting.  

Hyphenated queries in Google are mostly the same search results but can vary slightly. For example, “full-time employee” vs “full time employee” have the exact same organic search results but vary slightly in the “People Also Ask” answer box.

There may be even more noticeable differences in search results when you hyphenate words that aren’t meant to be hyphenated. For example, “payday” vs “pay-day” have different order of local pack search results.

So while there can be small subtleties, and I mean SMALL, the difference is not anything compared to the differences between singular and plural search queries because those queries can have different intent. In short, I wouldn’t worry about optimizing for a hyphenated phrase or not because search engines interpret them the same for the most part.

I find that a relief – we don’t have to choose between being grammatically correct and optimizing for target keywords. Even if searchers are omitting the hyphens in a compound modifier, we can use them in our content without sacrificing our search rankings. As Kasteler said, search engines see hyphenated and non-hyphenated phrases pretty much the same.

Should I hyphenate my URLs?

Turns out, yes. Back to Hennessey: “When building out URL structure, best practice SEO is to use a hyphen as opposed to an underscore.” This is because a hyphen doesn’t play the same role in URL structure as it does in grammar. “Simply put, Google interprets a hyphen as a separator between words while an underscore just combines the words together algorithmically.”

So, even if you know wrongly-hyphenated is incorrect, don’t consider it incorrect when writing a URL. Don’t write www.example.com/wrongly_hypenated/ or www.example.com/wronglyhyphenated/. Write www.example.com/wrongly-hyphenated/

8 Key Takeaways About Hyphenated Words or Phrases

There’s a lot to unpack about compound modifiers. I’ll try to summarize everything:

  1. If two or more modifiers come before the word, hyphenate.
  2. If the modifiers come after the word, do not hyphenate.
  3. Avoid stacked modifiers.
  4. Do not hyphenate the noun being modified.
  5. Do not hyphenate words not meant to be hyphenated. E.g., payday, comic book
  6. If one modifier has an -ly, do not hyphenate.
  7. Using compound modifiers in your content will not affect SEO results.
  8. Use hyphens in your URLs.

And while this post isn’t about the difference between a dash and a hyphen, for a little more information about it, check out the hyphens and dashes section of our Guide to Using Punctuation

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