How the tiny hyphen causes big confusion

Word Czar weighs in on when—and when not—to use this small but helpful punctuation mark

There’s quite a difference between a cowboy and a cow-boy.

Much has been made about the rampant misuse of apostrophes—and rightly so—but now we must also be on the lookout for indiscriminate hyphenation.

Here are some examples that I’ve seen recently:

Now if you recognize these as your own work, please realize that I’m not here to throw stones. Actually, I am, but each stone has a note attached.

Adjectival and adverbial forms

Let’s start in the middle of that batch. (It’s my essay, and I’ll start where I damn well please.) “… from talking face-to-face.” That’s how most people would write it, and “face-to-face” is fine when it comes before a noun, hence, used as an adjective: “Let’s have a face-to-face discussion about this proposal.” If you use the phrase as an adverb, though, please ditch the hyphens: “Let’s discuss it face to face.”

Other phrases that follow this format include:

Verbs versus nouns

“Check-in is at 3 p.m.,” a hotel website will inform you. A conference brochure, however, might advise, “Please check in at least 30 minutes before the opening keynote address.”

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