Posted in Reading, Writing Tips

Punctuation Pantry – How to Use Suspended Hyphens

Welcome! We’re starting something new today. An ongoing series entitled “Punctuation Pantry,” because amid all the excitement with crafting characters, creating unbeatable plot twists, or finding a way to kill cliches like nobody’s business . . . well, all that would fall pretty flat without proper punctuation, wouldn’t it? *tries to ignore various snores among audience*

Hey, it’ll be fun, I promise!

And you might be pleased to know I’m not starting with something boring like commas. Nope. I’m introducing – you may or may not have heard of these handy little things already – drumroll, please . . .

Suspended hyphens.

These things are so useful. Everyone needs to know about them. Ironically, I did not learn about their usage from a grammar book – nobody ever talked about them. I picked up on them from reading novels, and compared their usage so I could guess as to the proper placement. Then I asked an English professor who also happens to be our neighbor. 🙂

So, have you ever seen this:

We strolled across the black- and white-checkered floor of the restaurant.

The italicized phrase black- and white-checkered floor employs the suspended hyphen. Note this sentence:

The two- or three-sentence riddles were vastly entertaining.

Two- or three-sentence riddles also recruits the suspended hyphen. What is it? Basically, you use it to bridge the gap between two adjectives that describe the same noun if a conjunction (like or or and) comes between the adjectives. So, if you just wrote two-line riddles, you obviously wouldn’t need the suspended hyphen, just a regular one. However, if you wanted to add an adjective, and still keep the conjunction in between, a second hyphenated word would be in place, with a space between the hyphen and the conjunction.

If this is confusing, I have more examples to follow. However, please realize, you can rework the structure of most sentences to get rid of suspended hyphens. But don’t do so too eagerly. They are extremely useful. The suspended hyphen actually makes your writing clearer to the reader, in my opinion. It harnesses those adjectives and makes it clearer what they are describing. For a more thorough definition, I recommend you check out Wikipedia’s explanation.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century technology was limited during those times.

The gray- and blue-scaled snake stole away into the grass.

It took only a one- or two-minute speech to capture the people’s attention.

These are all examples of suspended hyphens. You’ve likely seen them while reading, but if you didn’t know their usage before, I hope you can understand it now. There are other, clearer explanations elsewhere, I’m sure.

Let’s chat! Have you ever used suspended hyphens? What do you think of them? And what other forms of punctuation would you like to see highlighted in our Punctuation Pantry series?



Hannah Gaudette is a home-school teen living in the hills of New England. When she’s not writing stories or training dogs, it’s a safe bet you can find her with some other animal, like cats. She’s a life-enthusiast who loves the ocean and The Piano Guys. Enough said.

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