December 2009 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Dog-Tired of Hyphenation Rules

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Jeff Zuckerman


By Jeff Zuckerman, Writing Center Director

It was the dog days of August. I sat my dog Toby down to discuss hyphens. Again.

Hyphens! he barked. Quit dogging the real problems!

Toby said he was dog-tired of the dog food that he said I buy dog-cheap. Even those doggy bones, he whined, that I had brought home in the doggy bag from the fast-food joint had a crummy hot-dog taste.

Well, that’s a dog’s life for you, I said.

Just a doggone minute, Toby said. I’m dog-sick of those invisible dog fences. And don’t tell me it’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s a dog-eat-squirrel world.

Yes, I said, the world has sure gone to the dogs. Now can we talk about hyphens?

Bow-wow, Toby replied, and retired to his doghouse for a dognap.

Well, here’s the lesson we would have discussed.

Toby Principle 1: Look it up in a good dictionary, especially Merriam-Webster’s. The phrase dog days is two words. A doghouse is one word. Dog-tired is listed as hyphenated, despite Principle 3 below.

APA Style Principle 2: Use a hyphen if a compound adjective expresses a single thought. A hot dog taste could be read as a very warm taste of fresh dog. A hot-dog taste would be the taste of a hot dog.
So be careful: An invisible-dog fence would enclose an invisible dog. An invisible dog fence is a fence you can’t see.

APA Style Principle 3: Most compound adjectives are hyphenated only before the noun they modify. A short-legged corgi, but the corgi was short legged. A hyphen-challenged fox terrier, but the fox terrier was hyphen challenged. A canine-cleaning brush, but a brush made for canine cleaning. A dog-eat-dog world, but a world in which it’s every man or woman for himself or herself.

APA Style Principle 4: Most words formed with prefixes are one word: antihero, bipolar, codependent, megalomania, metacognition, pretest, unreliable.

Toby Principle 5: Adverbs ending in –ly plus a participle or adjective are generally not hyphenated: doggedly tired Scottie, utterly useless cat.

Toby Principle 6: Hyphenate a number combined with an adjective before a noun. A 9-year-old cockapoo, but a cockapoo that is 9 years old. A 300-page APA manual, but the manual is 300 pages long.

Questions about hyphenation or APA style? Visit Walden’s online writing center for APA style tutorials.

Questions about prairie dog grammar? Check out the work of Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University.

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