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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.

Twenty-seven
Four hundred and thirty-five

Fractions also get hyphenated.

Three-fifths

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.

Self-absorbed
Ex-husband

However, not all prefixes use hyphens.

[/incorrect]Re-place
Un-happy[/incorrect]

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.

Re-enter
Coordinate

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.

HyphenJoke

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?

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.

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.

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