A lot of people screw up hyphenation.
Please note that it’s not:
A lot of people screw-up hyphenation.
If I’d written that, it would be a screw-up.
Hyphenation can be tricky. There’s widespread confusion, it seems, about when and how the tiny line segments should and shouldn’t be used. With so many instances in which people guess wrong, covering all the misuses would take acres of the Internet. I’ll try to be concise, yet thorough.
Adverbs versus adjectives
Generally, if you use a phrase before a noun (as an adjective), you would hyphenate it.
Jerome and Frieda had a face-to-face meeting.
If you use that phrase after a verb (as an adverb), you would not hyphenate it.
Jerome and Frieda met face to face.
Also (the repetition stinks, but):
Try to stay up to date by getting up-to-date reports from Jerome and Frieda.
No hyphen is needed when an -ly adverb precedes an adjective:
Jascha delivered the randomly gathered comments, not … the randomly-gathered comments.
This applies to -ly adverbs, not other parts of speech. For example: This is a family-oriented restaurant. Family is a noun, and oriented modifies family; together, family-oriented modifies restaurant. So, the hyphen is OK.
Verbs versus nouns
This is tricky, because in some cases the noun takes a hyphen, and sometimes it becomes a compound word, with no hyphen.
Even though I missed the official deadline for check-in, they let me check in anyway.
I decided to check up on my new doctor before scheduling a checkup.
Whether a noun gets hyphenated is often a style issue. (I’ve flagged the -up page of my AP Stylebook with a Post-It, because I check and double-check those entries so frequently.)
The most common error, it seems, is the tendency to link a verb with the subsequent adverb with a hyphen. Don’t make these mistakes:
Gretchen vowed to call-out her nemesis.
Theodore couldn’t log-in because he forgot his password.
Muriel decided to ring-up her old flame, Andre. (Andre’s wife was not amused.)
And so on. If it’s a verb with an adverb that seems linked to it, leave out the hyphen; that bond is strong enough. Try this mnemonic: If it’s a verb—to log in, to call out, to ring up—remember the to and use two words.
Nouns versus adjectives
Ebenezer is thrilled that he can get stock updates in real time.
Ebenezer is thrilled that he can get real-time stock updates.
I get fast food at a fast-food restaurant.
(Of course, when I fast, I get no food at all.)
I wanted to say, “Thank you,” so I sent a thank-you card.
In that last example, “Thank you” is a phrase that serves as a noun—it’s the object of the verb say. The adjectival thank-you modifies card.
The 77-year-old woman found love in a most unlikely setting.
When his favorite team lost the Stanley Cup, Garth moped around like a 2-year-old.
For some reason, many people leave out the second hyphen:
The 77-year old woman found love in a most unlikely setting.
That would suggest she’d been an old woman for 77 years—and that would make her ancient.
However, no hyphens in this case:
Aloysius is 36 years old, as of Tuesday.
Here’s a variation of the above:
The show’s target demographic is the 18-to-34 year old market.
Here’s how it should be written:
The show’s target demographic is the 18- to 34-year-old market.
Sometimes the second element doesn’t take a hyphen, in which case it looks like this:
The customer service rep should conduct him- or herself with dignity.
Wrapping up (not wrapping-up)
These are some of the more common ways hyphens should and shouldn’t be used. I plan to follow up with a follow-up article, so please offer questions and suggestions in the comments section.