By Erin Wright
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 always have the option to use regular hyphens, instead. (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