Test Your Use of Hyphens in Your Stories

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I decided to stop winging my use of hyphens and arm myself with some rules. 

A Hyphen-Usage Test

Which four of these examples are incorrect? At the end of the test, see the analysis of why each example is correct or incorrect.

  1. ceiling-tall Christmas tree
  2. the small-delicate dancer
  3. a protein-eating diet
  4. the front-porch rocker
  5. he was soft-hearted about disciplining
  6. a lovingly-planted garden
  7. a well-timed event
  8. a twenty-four-hour job
  9. held for two- and three-hour sessions
  10. black and white cruiser


First, my heading is correct—A Hyphen-Usage Test. Capitalize the first word and all hyphenated words in a title except articles (the), prepositions (with), and conjunctions (and). The only time a hyphenated word is not capitalized in a title is when the first word is a prefix that can’t stand alone (A Smile Is an Anti-aging Device). 

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  1. Correct. This noun and adjective unite to modify a noun. The noun following united words is key.
  2. Incorrect. Small and delicate don’t unite to describe the dancer; they each stand alone. So, “the small, delicate dancer” is correct.
  3. Correct. This noun and gerund unite to modify a noun (diet). Eating standing alone would suggest a fun diet!
  4. Correct. It’s not a front rocker. Front and porch unite to modify the rocker (noun). 
  5. Incorrect. Here, soft-hearted doesn’t unite to modify a noun. The correct sentence is “He was soft hearted about disciplining.”
  6. Incorrect. Yes, this adverb and verb unite to modify garden, but two words with a leading adverb ending in -ly aren’t joined with a hyphen. Correct is “a lovingly planted garden.” An -ly adverb is what causes the different rule. However, if lovingly is in the middle of a multiple-word descriptor, such as “the far-from-lovingly-planted garden,” lovingly gets a hyphen.
  7. Correct. Well is not an adverb ending in -ly, and it unites with timed to modify a noun (event). But the adverb well in “the meeting was well timeddoesn’t use a hyphen. Here, “well timed” is not followed by a noun.
  8. Correct. This multiple-word modifier unites to describe a noun.
  9. Correct. Both two-hour and three-hour are adjective phrases modifying a noun and are written as in the example.
  10. Incorrect. When a color combination precedes a noun, it’s hyphenated. It’s a “black-and-white cruiser,” but “the cruiser was black and white.” Also, it’s a “blue-green pond.”

Sometimes hyphens are used for clarity. Consider: “We passed five mile markers.” This talks about the number of mile markers. If the markers were placed every five miles and we passed these markers, we’d write, “We passed five-mile markers.”

Which hyphenating rule is a problem in your writing?

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How to Find the Amazing Word for That Thingy, Modifier, or Action

Flip Dictionary takes you from a “meaning” you are aware of to the “word” you need.” —Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

In a scene, my character senses a reverent atmosphere, but I didn’t want to use atmosphere. I couldn’t summon the word I wanted. Microsoft Word’s thesaurus offered ambiance, feeling, mood, and others. I knew a better word was available but my brain couldn’t capture it.

I looked up atmosphere in Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Aura. That was it!

Under the word atmosphere, Kipfer listed 16 words for different kinds of atmosphere. For example: “atmosphere of special power or mystery: mystique.”

So, today I want to plug Flip Dictionary. Let’s look at some other examples. 

Example 1

How about courage. The thesaurus supplied: bravery, nerve, pluck, valor, daring, audacity, mettle, resolution, and guts.

As Flip Dictionary does, it named all of the above from a thesaurus and then added: backbone, boldness, braveness, chin up, élan, fearlessness, firmness, fortitude, gallantry, gameness, grit, gumption, hardihood, heart, the heart of a lion, heroism, prowess, soul, spine, spunk, and tenacity.

Wow. What a wealth of words to choose from. Some have a different meaning from, but are in the scope of, courage.

image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

Suppose my character is a boy who grabs a runaway dog’s leash and persists in pulling the resistant canine away from a busy street. I might use a form of:        

  • Grit – “courage and resolve; strength of character”
  • Gumption – “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”
  • Heroism – “great bravery”
  • Spunk – “courage and determination”
  • Tenacity – “the quality or fact of being determined; determination”

(definitions from New Oxford American Dictionary)

I like spunk. I don’t think I’d use it for a man. Maybe for a grandmother or a young woman. If my story is folksy, I might employ gumption.

The point is Flip Dictionary gives me words that go beyond synonyms. I like that.

Example 2

What’s the bar thingy that holds flags so they hang across a porch?

I looked up flag, and beneath it I found:

image by jill111
image by jill111

Flag hung on crosspiece, not pole: gonfalon”

gonfalon: “a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Gonfalon was also listed under banner in Flip Dictionary.

If you can look up a clue to the thingy escaping you, often you’ll find it in Flip Dictionary.

An amazing resource that gives me words that go beyond synonyms. Click to tweet.

If you use another resource or Flip Dictionary, would you tell us about how you use it?