To hyphenate or not to hyphenate

I’ve been looking at the search terms via which people come to my blog. And after from the filthy, the scary and the just plain weird (“blue ball with yellow hair”), the hyphen question is one of the most popular.

So, here’s a quick and simple guide to whether you need to hyphenate. It’s not definitive – some people will disagree – but it’s done me well.

There are various situations in which you need to use a hyphen, but the most common is the compound adjective before a noun. If adjectives and nouns are a distant memory for you, that means: two connected descriptive words, before a ‘thing’. If there’s no noun after the descriptive words, you don’t need to hyphenate them.

So:

This is a long-term approach.
We expect this approach to be long term.
In the short term, we plan to continue with this approach.

The garden was full of sweet-smelling flowers.
The flowers were sweet smelling.

The 50-year-old law is considered outdated by many.
The law is 50 years old and many consider it outdated.
Note: when writing about people, hyphenate their ages even if no noun follows (a three-year-old girl/a three-year-old, but: she is three years old).

The house needed an all-over clean.
The house needed to be cleaned all over.

If anyone’s wondering where this eclectic bunch of examples came from, they’re all from genuine Google searches via which people have ended up here.

I hope that’s helpful. If you want to know more (I worry, I really do), you can download this guide to hyphens and dashes, which I wrote last year at Which? – hence the slight skew towards consumer goods.

Or, if you have a hyphen query and you’re still not sure what to do, feel free to leave me a question in the comments below, and I’ll reply as promptly as work and gin allow.

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