I mentioned hyphens briefly in my post on the dash, but I am going to look at them a little more here, especially in a unique way they can be used in fiction.
A hyphen is the shortest of all the lines used in punctuation. It is used when two or more words come together to act as one adjective.
The Common Examples
The reason we connect words with hyphens when they act together in an adjective role is when they normally would not go before a noun. They’re out of place, so they tie themselves together to let us know they are together. Let me give you an example.
The girls are six years old.
We don’t use hyphens here since this is the regular sentence structure. But:
The six-year-old girls ate mangoes.
Here we need hyphens since we moved the regular structure around. Take them away and suddenly there are six year-old girls (six girls who are all 1 year old), which is very different.
Another time when the difference is very important is between:
Man eating fish / Man-eating fish
In the first one, the man is eating the fish; in the second one, the fish is eating the man.
That is the explanation of hyphens you will find in a grammar book, probably. However, there are other, non-standard ways to use them. One way is by taking a whole section of text and making it into an adjective. There’s probably a term for these but I just call them rambling adjectives since they can go on and on.
It was the kind of day where you wake up late and can’t find any clean clothes.
In this sentence, the part of the sentence after the noun (in this, case “day”) is called a dependent clause. This part of a sentence usually starts with words like where, who, that, stuff like that.
It’s a bit like an adjective anyway since it tells us what the day is like. We can move all this in front of the noun to make it all an adjective. Like this:
It was a wake-up-late-and-can’t-find-any-clean-clothes sort of day.
This is basically the hyphen rule on steroids since every word has to be connected with a hyphen to show that they are all working together in one monster adjective.
This kind of construction is usually only used for comedic or light-tone writing. You probably won’t see this in any academic writing. Like anything unusual, you don’t want to use it too much, but it can be memorable when used at the right time.
Some other examples:
The man was a giant: not the grind-your-bones-to-make-my-bread sort of giant, but just someone who needed to duck before walking through a doorway.
That night, Mrs. Terry made them dinner. It was a last-meal-before-the-electric-chair blowout, a banquet created with a Caligula-esque lack of restraint, a meal that the town would talk about for years. There was a lot of food, is what I am saying, and the village people ate it all.
Another way to use hyphens is to create specific and unique metaphors. The difference is that while rambling adjectives say the meaning plainly (after all, it’s just a sentence rearranged in an interesting way), this type uses fewer words.
It was a chocolate-and-flowers romance.
Meaning: a standard romance where the man courts the woman by giving her chocolates and flowers. This could mean that it was a traditional, standard romance, or it could mean a romance where the man lavishes a lot of gifts on the woman. It would depend on the context in the story.
This type of metaphorical phrase is harder to do. There are fewer words so they have to do more work. In this case, this only works if we know that chocolates and flowers are traditional gifts when dating.
On one hand, you have to trust that your readers know something, but you also have to guess what they might know based on who you think will read your story.
She turned, the moon shining through her ghost-girl hair.
For this you would need to know that many depictions of ghost girls and women, especially in Asia, show them with long hair that is left loose. You might also picture hair hanging down in front of her face, since that is how ghost girls are often shown too. The main thing, as I mentioned in the piece on cliches, to be aware of the mental picture you are creating and make sure it is the one you intend.
Now it’s your turn
- Practice describing things throughout the day using rambling adjectives. See how creative you can make them.
- Combine random words into metaphorical phrases and see what pictures they make in your mind. A lot won’t make any sense but it’s a good exercise for describing things in a unique and memorable way. For example, what mental picture comes up with these phrases?
- A garbage-bag friendship
- A nest-of-snakes accident
- A glass-needle education
- An angry-dad sky
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