The Red Pen: When NOT to Use a Hyphen

We Need to Talk About Grammar is a weekly feature in which I complain about grammatical mistakes I encounter all too often. Feel free to commiserate below, and check out the archives here!

Last week, we talked about when you should use a hyphen. This week, we’re going to go over the situations in which you shouldn’t use a hyphen, and what you should use instead.

1. When you mean to use a dash. Dashes are used to indicate an interruption in a sentence. As we saw yesterday, hyphens are used for a variety of things, but indicating the flow of a sentence isn’t one of them. Make sure not to make the following mistake:

I wanted to go to Walmart-it’s the closest department store to our house-but it was closed. INCORRECT
I wanted to go to Walmart—it’s the closest department store to our house—but it was closed. CORRECT
I wanted to go to Walmart – it’s the closest department store to our house – but it was closed. ALSO CORRECT

The only difference between the last two sentences is that the first correct sentence uses an em-dash and the second correct sentence uses an en-dash. They both serve the same purpose, and they’re both acceptable (although the en-dash is, apparently, preferred). Also, you should always surround an en-dash with spaces, whereas an em-dash should never be surrounded by spaces.

2. With prefixes or suffixes other than self-, ex-, all-, -style, -elect, -free, or -based. I’d list all of them, but I have neither enough time nor enough space. Just rest assured that as long as you’re not using one of the above prefixes or suffixes, you most likely don’t need to use a hyphen. (Check last week’s post for the few exceptions.)

3. When a compound adjective occurs after the noun it modifies. Like we talked about last week, compound adjectives are hyphenated when they come before the noun they modify:

The hospital provides patient-oriented care.

But when the compound adjective comes after the noun it modifies, it isn’t hyphenated:

The care the hospital provides is patient oriented.

This is both an important and a confusing one. This is something that messes me up a lot when I’m reading; I could always tell intuitively that it was incorrect, but I couldn’t vocalize why, even in my head. Writing this blog feature has actually been really helpful for me, because I’m learning why things are the way they are instead of saying, “I don’t know why it is this way, but it is.”


Are there any other situations in which you’re not sure whether or not to use a hyphen?

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