Grammarly Blog

Hyphens: The Punctuation Mark That Even Editors Can’t Get Right

Super high-profile ad agencies and industry giants, despite large budgets and an intelligent workforce, are known to make hyphen mistake after mistake, unable to get a handle on correct hyphen usage. I’m looking at you, Netflix, with a hyphen error right on the main page!NetflixMistakeThankfully, most hyphen usage falls into a few different categories:

  • Compound adjectives (but no -ly endings because those are adverbs!)
  • Numbers and fractions
  • Specific prefixes
  • Preventing confusion

Compound Adjective

The most important breed of hyphen to know is the one associated with compound adjectives, which are single adjectives made up of more than one word. Because both words go hand-in-hand to modify the same noun, a hyphen is used to show they are linked. The important part to keep in mind is that all words in the compound adjective are equally important. For example, “high-priced items” would not make sense as “high items” or “priced items.”

Beware of Adverbs!

While closely related to adjectives in the sense that they’re another kind of modifier, adverbs inherently imply subordination to the word that follows.

Critically-acclaimed movies

The above is incorrect because “critically” is providing context for “acclaimed,” and “acclaimed” is describing the movies. “Acclaimed” is a verb, and that’s why the adverb “critically” is referring to it exclusively and not the nonverb “movies.”

Search -ly Endings

The quick trick to knowing whether to hyphenate compound modifiers without sorting out adverbs vs. adjectives is to look for words ending in -ly. This will (most of the time) indicate an adverb rather than an adjective and, thus, no hyphen.

Exception: Some nouns end in -ly, so be mindful of what hyphens you leave off. For example “family-owned business” should retain the hyphen after “family” despite the -ly because “family” is a noun.

Numbers and Fractions

Of the hyphen family, these are perhaps the easiest to classify and implement. Numbers twenty-one through ninety-nine get hyphenated.

Four hundred and thirty-five

Fractions also get hyphenated.


When describing ages, hyphenate the age only when it’s used as an adjective before a noun.

The child playing with her toys was five years old.
The five-year-old child played with her toys.

Specific Prefixes

A prefix is a modifier placed before a word to alter or enhance its meaning. The prefixes “self-,” “ex-,” and “all-,” almost always need a hyphen between them and the words they’re modifying.


However, not all prefixes use hyphens.


In addition, be sure to break up double vowels between a prefix and a root word unless your spelling checker flags them as incorrect with a hyphen.


Preventing Confusion

The hardest hyphen breed to capture, and certainly the most difficult to tame, is the one used to prevent confusion, often with a group of three or more words that contains either multiple modifiers or a noun that’s made up of two or more words.

Consider the phrase “two dollar bills”: Does it indicate multiple bills of the $2 denomination, or is it two bills of the $1 denomination? Does the phrase “twenty odd people” refer to twenty people who are strange or a group of people with about twenty in attendance?

See also this article about one author’s thoughts about the flying purple people eater. The world will perhaps never know exactly what this creature looked like or ate.

The hyphen makes the distinction for you.


And, finally, consider this interesting and slightly unfortunate story about the word “re-sent.” Without the hyphen, it reads as “resent,” which is certainly not the intended sentiment. Even though “re-” is not a prefix that typically gets hyphenated, the hyphen in this case provides an important clarification.

Have you seen any embarrassing hyphen mistakes or made any of your own?

The whole hog was eaten by me.

Three voices in English joke.
How to Use the Passive Voice Correctly

 from Grammarly Blog

First, let’s start with an explanation of what passive voice is. Passive voice sentences mention the thing or person receiving an action before mentioning the action itself, and may omit the actor altogether. For example, consider this sentence:

The leaves were blown by the wind.

The leaves receive the action of being blown. In the example, the agent is specified with the preposition by. However, the agent could have been left out of the sentence: The leaves were blown.

When is it proper to use passive voice? Consider these instances. Why do you suppose passive voice is appropriate? Check your answers below.

  • My camera was stolen from my locker at school.
  • A candle will be lit at the memorial service for the fallen soldier.
  • Diets are made to be broken.
  • The sodium hydroxide solution was heated to 200 degrees.


  • Who stole the camera? The agent is unknown. If you do not know who committed an action, it is appropriate to use passive voice.
  • Who do you want to receive the attention? If you prefer the attention to be on the action itself (the candle being lit) and not the person doing the lighting, you may omit the agent.
  • You are expressing a general truth that is applicable to many. Using active voice to express this idea would be awkward: People who make diets make them to be broken.
  • Researchers often use passive voice in scientific reports. It is assumed that the reader knows that the experimenters are performing the actions without stating this fact explicitly. But, according to the University of Toronto, this trend is on the decline. Recent papers tend to contain more examples of active voice.
  • Is it who or whom?

    from Grammarly Blog

    Grammar Basics: How to Use “Whom”

    Whom is not a subject. Whom is a direct object of a verb.
    Whom is one of the most confusing pronouns. Many people wonder how to use it. Is it a subject? Is it an object? Here are the simple answers.

    • Whom is not a subject.
    • Whom can be the direct object of a verb.
    • Whom did the waiter serve first? (The waiter served whom first?)
    • Whom is also used in a relative clause that describes a noun that is an object.

    *The company hired the musician whom I recommended.

    • Whom can serve as the object of a preposition.

    *With whom does Belinda plan to go to the dance?

    *The man from whom Alexis received the letter works at the supermarket.

    • In casual speech and writing, people usually use who even when whom is technically correct. If you are still a little confused, try the substitution trick to determine whether to use who or whom. Mentally answer whom questions with the pronouns “him” or “her.”

    *To whom does this pen belong? The pen belongs to him. This response makes sense, so whom is correct.

    *Whom is coming to the party on Saturday? Her is coming. This reply does not sound right. You should replace whom with who.

    On writing anything we want others to read

    Image result for writingAny piece of expository writing, whether a report for work or an essay for a college English class, will be successful only to the extent that it is read; understood; and, if we have done our jobs well, appreciated. At the very least, it needs some kind of introduction that tells our readers where they’re headed and what they’re likely to find on the journey they have agreed to take with us. If we don’t provide this, we risk having them scratch their heads in bewilderment because they will feel as though they have come in on the middle of things.

    After we’ve written an introduction that provides this road map, we’ll want to develop solid paragraphs that refer back to and extend our introduction. Every paragraph needs a topic sentence—a general statement that provides an overview of what the paragraph is about—and all of the information in the paragraph should relate only to and deepen that particular topic. If, for example, the topic sentence is about fruit, we will not want to include in the paragraph material about flat tires and incense unless we are certain we can successfully relate these to the topic of fruit.

    Of course, if we create a paragraph around one topic but say little of importance about that topic, it is as if we have said nothing at all. To be successful writers, then, we need to develop our topics by providing substantive information that supports and deepens them. This includes using our own knowledge, observations, and experiences and offering paraphrased, summarized, and quoted material from our sources that add authority and credibility to our own ideas.

    Crafting a paragraph (or sets of related paragraphs) around one topic goes a long way towards ensuring cohesion (when ideas hold together, one after the other) and coherence (when the writing flows smoothly). Using transitions that connect the ideas from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next also helps to create a cohesive and unified piece; however, it is not enough just to use transitional words (such as “however”) and phrases that link sentences and paragraphs. Other transitional devices include taking an idea from one sentence and repeating or paraphrasing it in the next as well as referring back to an idea in a preceding paragraph.

    Concluding well is as important as beginning well, and there are any number of ways to end an expository piece of writing. One way to end is to synthesize what you have written and to suggest why the reader should care about what you have said. Another conclusion strategy is to offer compelling information or insights that you have not mentioned previously.


    Do you know how to use who, that, or which correctly?

    that or which?

    Image Credit

    In my writing classes, students often want to know the rules about when to use whothat, and which in a sentence. I tell them that confusion about using these is not uncommon, and I begin my explanation with a discussion of the differences between who and that/which.

    Use who when referring to a person. Consider this example: The boy who is at the end of the line should come to the front now. Use that or which only when referring to places or things. Take these examples: The sandwich that he ate was delicious. or The sandwich, which I ate yesterday, was delicious. Obviously, we would never say the sandwich who; nor should we say the boy that (although using that when referring to a person—particularly in conversation—is one of the more common grammatical mistakes).

    Once they understand how to use who, that, and which correctly, many people still are confused about whether they should use that or which when referring to places or things. To understand which one is the correct choice, though, you first need to know the difference between a restrictive clause and a nonrestrictive clause.

    A restrictive clause is a part of the sentence (a clause) that is essential to its meaning. For instance, in the previous example (The sandwich that he ate was delicious.), the clause that he ate is needed because I want my reader to know that we are not just talking about any sandwich; we are talking about the one that the boy ate. So, we use the word “that” to begin a clause that is essential if we are to understand the meaning of the sentence.

    A nonrestrictive clause is one that adds more information to a sentence, but this information does not need to be there for us to understand the sentence’s meaning. And, to introduce an inessential, nonrestrictive clause, we use the word “which.” Consider, again, the example above: The sandwich, which I ate yesterday, was delicious. As the author of this sentence, I want to use the word “which” because the clause which I ate yesterday is additional information that is not critical to understanding the sentence, and I can take it out without changing the meaning.

    We would use the word “who” to begin a nonrestrictive clause when we are referring to a person (e.g., The boy, who walked home yesterday, was happy.) Who walked home yesterday, the nonrestrictive clause, can be removed from the sentence, and it still would make sense.

    Sometimes, though, our use of that or which depends on the meaning we intend. For instance, if I write The sandwich that I ate yesterday was delicious., I am using that because it is essential to the meaning of the sentence. If, say, previously I have mentioned something about a sandwich I ate today, which was not delicious, and I want to compare it to the one I ate yesterday, then that I ate yesterday is a necessary (restrictive) clause if you are to understand the comparison I am making.

    Or, if I write Yesterday I rode the bus that is blue, by using that and not which I am suggesting there are other buses that are not blue. So, my next sentence could be Today, I rode the bus that is pink.

    One last point is that we need to place commas at the beginning and at the end of a nonrestrictive clause, but we never use commas around a restrictive clause. Here are a few examples:

    • The girl, who is wearing green, came to school late.
    • Our car, which is black, is very dirty after the snowstorm.
    • The glasses, which I bought at Target, will be perfect for the holidays.
    • BUT NOT The sandwich, that I ate, was delicious.

    So now you know.

    The singular “they”

    When I was a middle schooler I learned that you should never use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. Doing so could brand you a grammar ignoramus, which for Mr. Swenson, my 7th grade English teacher, was a fate almost worse than death.

    According to Arika Okrent in “4 Fake Grammar Rules You Don’t Need to Worry About,” (Mental Floss),

    [t]he rule says that because they is a plural pronoun, it must have a plural antecedent. This means that the sentence If anyone has a problem with that, they should tell me is wrong because anyone is singular and they is plural. They should be switched to a singular pronoun, but which one? “Generic he” was the prescription in the 19th century (If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me), but as it became clear that he was neither generic nor neutral, the suggestion was to either use the cumbersome “he or she” (If anyone has a problem with that, he or she should tell me) or to rewrite the sentence entirely (Got a problem with that? Let me know).

    To avoid the “cumbersome ‘he or she,'” many of us alternated their use, as in this example: “If anyone has a problem with that, he should tell me. Even better, she should complain to the director.” This approach, though, is nothing if not awkward—and confusing. Now, however, it appears we can use “they” with impunity; the Washington Post says so, and, at the American Dialect Society’s 2015 annual meeting, “they” was named “word of the year.”

    Still, I don’t know if I will be able to make the switch. In a conversation yesterday, I heard myself say something like, “Anyone can take the class if they think it will help them.” Immediately Mr. Swenson’s face appeared before me, and he was not happy.