The fear is sneakier. We think we understand hyphens, unlike semicolons, but do we overuse them, do we underuse them; are copyeditors laughing in their sleeves about our hyphen use?
Here’s a professional copyeditor secret: while there is a right and wrong when using semicolons, the use of hyphens are much grayer. Be guided by consistency and clarity.
1) Hyphens are often used in a word, such as anti-mouse or pre-nuptial. The trend is to close up these words. When in doubt, check the dictionary.
2) Hyphens are used to connect modifiers. For example “a middle school social studies class” has four modifiers and they don’t all modify the class directly. And so a few well-placed hyphens will make that word salad much easier to read (please ignore the mixed metaphors, thank you) “a middle-school social-studies class.”
2a) As we have seen above, if you have an adjective that consists of more than one word that modifies a noun, add a hyphen.
2b) Do not use a hyphen with an adverb. “Her barely-there bikini” is just wrong. Wrong. Don’t do it.
2c) To summarize: hyphenating adjectives is usually okay.
3) One tricky thing to remember is that words that are hyphenated before a noun are often set open (unhyphenated) after a noun. “The decision-making committee was full of decision makers” or “The reddish-brown dog was reddish brown.”
What other questions do you have about hyphens? If I get enough encouragement, I may just explain the existence of en dashes and em dashes. Try to contain your enthusiasm.