September 25, 2019

Hyphen defenders (or is it hyphen-defenders?), take heart.

The Associated Press is reversing some of its March 2019 guidance on how we use the wedding band of the punctuation world.

“Thanks to input from our users, we are reversing our decision to delete the hyphen from ‘first-quarter touchdown’ and ‘third-quarter earnings,’” AP Stylebook Editor Paula Froke told Poynter in an email. “We agree that, for instance, ‘first-half run’ should be hyphenated. So to conform, we are returning the hyphen to the ‘-quarter’ phrases.”

In a March Stylebook update, Froke said, the AP noted the difference between commonly recognized noun phrases and compound modifiers in phrases. Her example: “Chocolate chip cookie” doesn’t need a hyphen. “French-speaking people” does.

“To correct one misperception: The updates we announced in March did not call for fewer hyphens or no hyphens in compound modifiers,” Froke said.

But when AP tweeted the guidance in August,  as Merrill Perlman wrote for CJR, it sparked “linguistic pandemonium.”


We updated our hyphen guidance this year to say no hyphen is needed in a compound modifier if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.
One example is first quarter touchdown.

— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) August 28, 2019


Here’s just a bit of the reaction:


You’re putting us on the road to Hell

— Chris Frink (@chrisfrink) August 28, 2019


Please, I have a family.

— Gendo Thiccari (@AnotherSpammer) August 28, 2019


I am become death destroyer of words.

— Brendan M. Lynch (@BrendanMLynch) August 29, 2019


Just told my copy desk. They are planning a riot.

— Lynne Sherwin (@LynneSherwin) August 28, 2019

— Poppa Health (@PoppaHealth) August 28, 2019


Based on feedback, the AP made some changes and clarifications to its guidance on hyphens.

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“The fact that our users are so invested is invaluable to us,” Froke said.

In addition to adding the hyphen back into -quarter phrases, here are more clarifications and changes:

  • As of Wednesday, the AP changed some wording that was part of the hyphen entry’s introduction for years: “Specifically, we are deleting the long-standing guidance that hyphen use is ‘optional in most cases’ and that ‘the fewer hyphens the better.’ That wording did not reflect the reality of the rest of the entry, or of our actual practice,” Froke said.
  • Not all hyphens are coming back. “… No hyphen is needed in ‘first grade student,’ just as no hyphen is needed in ‘high school student,’” Froke said. “That decision stands.”
  • And the AP Stylebook kept wording it has used previously that says “‘use of the hyphen is far from standardized’ and, as in the past, note that it can be ‘a matter of taste, judgment and style sense.’ Then, as in the past, we proceed to give many examples of when hyphens are indeed necessary.”

AP Stylebook changes often spark outrage and celebration. Another big shift came in March when the AP announced the percent sign was OK when used with a numeral. In 2017, the stylebook accepted “singular they” as a non-gendered pronoun. In 2014, editors removed the beloved distinction between over and more than.

RELATED READING: AP says the percentage sign now OK when used with a numeral

The hyphen itself gets some attention in Stylebook updates, too. In 2017, 3D and Walmart lost the hyphen. Email lost it way back in 2011.

In the August uproar about hyphen changes, Kyle Koster offered some perspective on the changes for The Big Lead, which covers sports.

“This is all probably small potatoes to the reader. But hyphenating words when they need to be hyphenated is a habit that will be impossible for journalists of a certain age to stop doing. And that’s a good thing because the presence or absence of them is one of the clearest indicators of the quality of writing and editing for a given piece.”

Here’s part of the updated guidance:

Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words.

Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. Think of hyphens as an aid to readers’ comprehension. If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don’t use it.

If the sheer number of hyphens in a phrase, or confusion about how to use them, can daunt either the writer or the reader, try rephrasing. It’s a guide about how to use hyphens wisely, not it’s a how-to-use-hyphens-wisely guide.

These guidelines include changes in 2019, most notably removal of the requirement to hyphenate most compound modifiers after versions of the verb to be. In addition, see individual entries in this book and in Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

AVOID AMBIGUITY: Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted. See COMPOUND MODIFIERS section for details. Also: He recovered his health. He re-covered the leaky roof. The story is a re-creation. The park is for recreation.

COMPOUND MODIFIERS: When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, you must decide: Hyphenate that modifier, or not? Often there’s not one absolute answer.

Do use a hyphen if it’s needed to make the meaning clear and avoid unintended meanings: small-business owner, better-qualified candidate, little-known song, French-speaking people, free-thinking philosophy, loose-knit group, low-income workers, never-published guidance, self-driving car, bases-loaded triple, one-way street (Think of the different possible meanings or confusion if the hyphen is removed in each of those examples.)

Other two-word terms, particularly those used as nouns, have evolved to be commonly recognized as, in effect, one word. No hyphen is needed when such terms are used as modifiers if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen. Examples include third grade teacher, chocolate chip cookie, special effects embellishment, climate change report, public land management, real estate transaction, emergency room visit, cat food bowl, parking lot entrance, national security briefing, computer software maker.

Often, arguments for or against a hyphen could be made either way. Again, try to judge what is most clear and logical to the average reader. Also, consult Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 

Kristen Hare covers local news for Poynter. She can be reached at or on Twitter, @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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