Suspended hyphens sound like troublemakers, don’t they? Before we accuse them of cutting class or being chronically late for work, let’s look at their less-than nefarious definition. We’ll follow up with five guidelines for how to use them in your writing (without getting into mischief).
What Are Suspended Hyphens?
Suspended hyphens, also called suspensive hyphens, replace repeated words, prefixes, or suffixes in two or more compound modifiers.
(Compound modifiers, also called phrasal adjectives,1 are multiple words that work together to modify a noun. They are usually hyphenated when they appear before the noun they are modifying.)
Here are a couple of examples of suspended hyphenation:
The patients discussed short- and long-term care insurance. (short-term and long-term care)
Local retailers need to hire more full- and part-time employees. (full-time and part-time employees)
Suspended hyphens are easy to identify because they are followed by a space (or prefaced by a space), which makes them look like they are “suspended” in air.
Note that words ending in ly aren’t hyphenated with suspended or regular hyphens.
Five Guidelines for Using Suspended Hyphens
The guidelines below explain how to use suspended hyphens with (1) repeated last words or suffixes in compound modifiers, (2) repeated first words or prefixes in compound modifiers, (3) closed compounds, and (4) numbers. The fifth guideline explains that you don’t have to use suspended hyphens at all. (No really, it’s true.)
1. Use Suspended Hyphens with Repeated Last Words and Suffixes
Suspended hyphens can be used if the last word or suffix repeats in two or more compound modifiers modifying the same noun.2
The left- and right-handed artists were equally talented. (left-handed and right-handed artists)
The coach was wary of signing a contract with the accident- and injury-prone player. (accident-prone and injury-prone player)
2. Use Suspended Hyphens with Repeated First Words or Prefixes
Suspended hyphens can be used if the first word or prefix repeats in two or more compound modifiers modifying the same noun.3
An award was given to the worst-looking and -sounding garage band. (worst-looking and worst-sounding garage band)
The start-up produced the highest-priced and -rated dog food on the market. (highest-priced and highest-rated dog food)
3. Use Suspended Hyphens with Closed Compounds
Suspended hyphens can be used with closed (unhyphenated) compounds within compound modifiers if the closed compounds share the same ending or beginning.
Shirt- and shoeless beachgoers swarmed the food truck. (shirtless and shoeless beachgoers)
The swimming department increased its lifeguard and -boat budget. (lifeguard and lifeboat budget)
4. Use Suspended Hyphens with Spelled-Out Numbers and Numerals
Suspended hyphens can be used with spelled-out numbers and numerals in compound modifiers.5
All the first- and second-grade students gathered for recess. (first-grade and second-grade students)
The bank offers 15-, 20-, and 30-year mortgages. (15-year, 20-year, and 30-year mortgages)
The decision to spell out numbers or use numerals will depend upon your style guide. Generally, those who follow The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) spell out numbers through one hundred, while those who follow The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style) or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) spell out single-digit numbers.
5. Use Regular Hyphens When Necessary
Suspended hyphens are appropriate in most business, nonfiction, and academic writing because they streamline sentences and they can help to create sentence structures that are closer to natural speech. However, there’s no rule that says you must use them. Sometimes, you may want to use regular hyphens and write out the repeated words in each compound modifier for clarity or emphasis.
The architect has designed one-story and twenty-story buildings.
The gardeners discussed high-maintenance and low-maintenance flowers.
Now that you’ve tackled this advanced hyphenation issue, punctuate your knowledge with these related topics:
- Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 69.
- The Associated Press Stylebook 2018 (New York: Associated Press, 2018), 326; The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 7.88; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association), 100.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 7.88; William A. Sabin, The Gregg Reference Manual, 11th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 278.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 7.88.