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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  1. Jane F Thompson

    That is so clear! I’ve always winged it, and not always successfully. It’s nice to know the rule. Thank you, Zoe. Why didn’t I ever hear that in an English class???

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      What you said, Jane, ditto for me.

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