Liz here for another weekly dose of grammar. Aren't you excited?
As a writer, sometimes you need to describe a character or a scenario, but the words at your disposal just aren't enough. Maybe your protagonist goes through an awkward moment, but the word awkward by itself doesn't fully reflect the depth of the discomfort your characters are feeling. You're feeling ballsy now that you've mastered the semicolon, and you decide that you're going to create your own adjective.
No, I am absolutely not suggesting that you try to actually create your own words. You're not Shakespeare (Joe here. Unlike Liz, I do suggest you create your own words). What I am suggesting is that you make use of the em dash‘s more common cousin, the hyphen.
Hyphens are great for situations where you need to enhance adjectives. For example, look at the difference between these two sentences.
“Oh, she's your wife,” Sheila said as the awkwardness in the room approached its peak.
“Oh, she's your wife,” Sheila said as the awkwardness in the room reached near-Himalayan heights.
In the first sentence, we know that the situation is uncomfortable. In the second, we know that it's really uncomfortable. Let's take a look at the rules of hyphen use so that you, too, can make your characters feel this same level of discomfort (or joy, or anger, or any other emotion).
1. Hyphens connect compound numbers.
The most common mistake with hyphen use that I've encountered happens when talking about ages.
Example: Francie is twenty-six years old. She is a twenty-six-year-old woman.
Congratulations, you no longer have any excuse to make that mistake again. Exceptions start when you get into the larger numbers.
Example: Jim's house is one hundred years old. Jim has a one hundred-year-old house.
The one and hundred are never hyphenated.
2. Hyphens connect adjectives meant to be used as one “word” or unit.
In the second sentence above, near-Himalayan has to be hyphenated. Here's why: if you don't hyphenate those adjectives, then all of the adjectives are modifying the noun. So if you didn't hyphenate above, then you would have awkwardness that reaches “near heights” and “Himalayan heights.” That doesn't really make sense.
The hyphen tells the reader that the near is modifying the partner adjective Himalayan, and not the heights.
3. Hyphens are NOT used when the descriptor words come after the noun.
The awkwardness heights were near Himalayan. No hyphens.
A lot of other hyphen rules come into play with prefixes, suffixes, and proper nouns, but let's take it slow. Learn these rules first. The rest are a matter of regular use and practice.
Speaking of practice, let's work with hyphens. Write about Sheila's revelation. Pepper your prose with hyphen-modified adjectives to really give us a sense of what's going on.
Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.