Tuesday, March 30, 2021


 by Jodie Renner, editor & author 

Is it knockout or knock-out or knock outlockdown or lock-down or lock down?

makeup, make up, or make-up? lineup or line-up or line up? workout or work out or work-out? set up or set-up or setup?

(Hint: Most of the above can be correct, depending on whether it's used as a noun, adjective, or verb. And yes, there is a pattern.)

Is it an off duty officer or an off-duty officer? well laid plans or well-laid plans?

over-compensate or overcompensate? under-staffed or understaffed? semi-circle or semicircle? para-legal or paralegal?

As a fiction editor, I advise on everything from plot, characterization, viewpoint, dialogue, voice, style, pacing, flow, and more, down to final proofreading for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Today I’m wearing my “Grammar Geek” hat to talk about how to use hyphens correctly in various situations, to make your intention and meaning clear

No matter what kind of writing you're doing, you don't want your readers to stop and wonder what you meant, exactly. That can cause confusion and subliminal (or not so subliminal) irritation and could lose you respect as a writer. 

*Note that these are North American norms – British guidelines can vary.

~ Is it one word, two words, or hyphenated? 

Even very good spellers often forget whether a term is one word, two words, or hyphenated, so here are a few handy guidelines. 

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (that and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are considered the go-to resources for North American copyeditors and proofreaders), 

“Far and away the most common spelling questions for writers and editors concern compound terms—whether to spell as two words, hyphenate, or close up as a single word.”

When we’re busy writing, it’s easy to forget, for even the easiest words, whether it’s one word, two words, or hyphenated. Often, each of those forms can be correct, depending on the part of speech and intent.

For example, you back up your files or back up to avoid walking into someone (an action, so verb). But it’s a back-up plan (adjective) and “My partner provided me with backup.” (noun)

Similarly, castoff(one word) is a noun – “That shirt is a castoff from my brother.”; cast-off” is an adjective – “She wore cast-off clothes.”; and cast off” is a verb – “He cast off the boat and we headed downriver.”

Many others follow the same pattern: cooldown (noun) – “We did a 10-minute cooldown,” cool-down (adj) – “Here are some cool-down exercises,” and cool down (verb) – “Time to cool down.”

And it’s “lookout” (one word) for the noun (thing) –“Let’s head to the lookout,” and the adjective – a lookout tower, but “look out” (two words) for the verb (action) – “Look out for snakes.”

And two slightly silly but correct examples:

The guy who cut off the other car at the cutoff was wearing cut-off shorts.

And finally, takeout (noun), take-out (adj.), and take out (v). “Let’s go to the corner takeout and take out some take-out food.”

So one word for the noun (person, place, or thing); two words for the verb (action): 

a workout (noun or adjective), to work out (verb) 

a setup (noun), to set up (verb) 

a hangout (noun or adjective), to hang out (verb) 

a lockdown (noun) to lock down (verb)

See a pattern here? Very often, 

- the noun form is one word, no hyphen: setup, login, makeup, hangout, workout, backup. Let's go to the usual hangout. I had a good workout. His partner provided backup.

 - the verb form is two words: set up, log in, make up, hang out, work out, back up. Want to hang out after class? Let’s work out this problem. I need to back up my files.

- and the adjective form is often hyphenated: hard-core poverty, a hands-off policy (see compound modifiers below).

 or can be one word, like the noun: backup plans, workout clothes.

(Although English being English, of course there are always exceptions, like break-in for the noun; but still break in for the verb.)

So these are all no-nos (incorrect): 

X "I need to logon, then logoff." Should be "log on" and "log off," as they're actions.

X "Let's setup the chairs." Should be "set up." 

X "Please makeup the bed." Should be "make up."

All are actions (verbs), so need to be two words. Just remember to separate off the up, down, out, on, etc. as its own word when it's an action.


(To avoid being overwhelmed by various examples of correct use of hyphens, maybe save the following ones for a later read. In fact, I recommend bookmarking this post for future reference.) 

~ Hyphenate compound modifiers before a noun. 

A general guideline is to hyphenate two or more modifiers before a noun (so an adjectival phrase), especially if to leave as two words could cause confusion; but to leave as two separate words when they come after the noun or verb (often functioning as an adverb). 

For example, “He’s a high-profile actor” but “He maintains a high profile.”

“It’s a middle-class neighborhood,” but “The neighborhood is middle class.”

“He asked an open-ended question,” but “The question was open ended.”

“It was a hands-down win,” but “They won hands down.”

“It was a computer-literate group,” but “The group was computer literate.”

“The school has a hands-off policy,” but “Keep your hands off.”

“They had a hand-to-mouth existence,” but “They lived hand to mouth.”

“The witness was an off-duty police officer,” but “He was off duty at the time.”

“I bought a flat-screen TV,” but “The TV has a flat screen.”

“My to-do list,” but “My list of things to do.”

"a black-and-white print" but "the truth isn't always black and white."

(Above is an example from the Chicago Manual of Style, which says no hyphens with other color combinations, eg. "a blue and yellow dress" or "a red and white flag."

“We strolled past side-by-side boutiques on the street,” but “Two clothing boutiques stood side by side on that street.”

~ But don’t hyphenate after –ly adverbs: 

Since the ly ending with adverbs signals to the reader that the next word will be another modifier, not a noun. 

For example, a sharply worded reprimand, a smartly dressed woman, a hastily written email

~ Hyphenate to avoid confusion.

To avoid confusion or ambiguity, it’s often best to hyphenate.

For example, there’s a big difference in meaning between a small animal hospital (an animal hospital that’s small) and a small-animal hospital (a hospital for small animals).

Same with a small business owner (not a large person ) and a small-business owner.

And the hyphen in “three-ring binders” tells us that three is the number of rings, not the number of binders, as might be assumed with “three ring binders.”

Similarly, the hyphen in “much-needed advice” connects the much with the needed, so we know the advice is greatly needed, not that there’s a lot of needed advice.

And the hyphen in “fast decision-making” shows us that decisions must be made soon, not that they’re quick decisions.

~ Hyphenate where numbers are involved. 

Chicago Manual of Style says to also hyphenate adjective-noun modifiers, especially where the adjective is a number:

For example, a twelve-step program, a five-year-old child, (but "the child is five years old"-- no hyphen) a five-dollar bill, a ten-mile hike, a six-foot-tall man, a ten-pound fish, a sixty-foot-long boat.

Notice how when hyphenated before a noun, the plural is dropped: for example, a woman is five feet tall, but she’s a five-foot-tall woman. Pregnancy lasts nine months but it’s a nine-month pregnancy.

~ Sometimes a phrase needs multiple hyphens for clarity. 

Hyphenate when two or more words form a compound set of modifiers to describe a noun -- but NOT when the modifiers come AFTER the noun: 

He spoke in a matter-of-fact manner. But, "Yes, as a matter of fact, it is."

It’s an edge-of-your-seat suspense. This thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat.

That's an over-the-counter drug, but That drug is sold over the counter.

They had a back-and-forth conversation, but They spoke back and forth like that.

Other examples: high-school-age children (to avoid confusion with “high school-age children” (not a good thing!), a winner-take-all contest, a one-on-one game.

You might also see/need two hyphenated words that apply to a single word: He was given the pre- and post-operation instructions.

~ Hyphen between the prefix and the root word? 

And what about all those words with prefixes like re, un, de, pre, bi, mid, over, under, semi, sub, etc.? Is it re-read or reread over-conscientious or overconscientious? extramarital or extra-marital? under-employed or underemployed? semicircle or semi-circle? sub-category or subcategory?

Merriam-Webster and Chicago Manual of Style both favor (favour) not hyphenating after a prefix, so according to these two recognized authorities, none of the above should be spelled with the hyphen. These also are correct, no hyphen: overcompensate, understaffed. But British (and Canadian) dictionaries seem to hyphenate them more often.

However, for some reason, Merriam-Webster puts a hyphen after the prefixes self and well, as in self-defense, self-discipline, well-mannered, well-endowed, etc. 

And sometimes you need the hyphen to clarify meaning. For example, you recover a lost wallet, but you re-cover a sofa. Similarly with re-creation of the scene of a crime, to avoid confusion with recreation as leisure-time activities.

~ The trend toward closed compounds (one word, no hyphen): 

Common usage has a tendency to simplify terms. “Web site” gradually became “website”; “e-mail” is increasingly “email”; “on line” changed to “on-line” to “online.”

If you're not totally overwhelmed by all these rules, or for another time, if you'd like some help with dashes (em and en) and ellipses, see my blog post, How and When to Use Hyphens, Dashes, and Ellipses. 

Also, see "Those Dang Homonyms! Commonly Misspelled Words"

*Check out my two handy, clickable, time-saving e-resources for writers, editors, students, and anyone else with writing projects: Quick Clicks: WORD USAGE – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips and Quick Clicks: SPELLING LIST – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips. With all kinds of internal links, they’re both super quick and easy to use! (They're designed to work on e-readers, tablets, laptops, and computers, but not phones.) 

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Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling FictionWRITING A KILLER THRILLERFIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICKCLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child WorkersYou can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook. 


  1. Thank you, Jodie for this excellent and helpful post. I'm often tortured by hyphens! Something I often struggle with is how to hyphenate colors when describing things. Such as "my blue and red ID" or "the yellow and white taxi" and "the red white and blue shirt."

    Do you have any advice on those? Many thanks!

    1. Hi David. Good question! According to the Chicago Manual of Style, no hyphen for color combinations except for black and white, when used before the noun - "a black-and-white print" but "the truth isn't black and white." But you need a comma after "red" (and one after "white") in your last example. Hope that helps!