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Write the Right Word: The Hyphen Makes a Difference

Sometimes, leaving out a hyphen can change a phrase’s meaning.

One example is “great grandfather.” Without the hyphen, you’re indicating your grandfather is a great guy. If you mean your mother or father’s grandfather, you need to say great-grandfather. For example: “My great-grandfather started the farm in 1902.”

The hyphen makes all the difference in phrases such as “small grain” and “small business,” too. If you said, “The producer raised a small grain crop,” you’d assume he had a bad year. But if you mean he grows wheat and oats, for example, you’d say, “The producer raises small-grain crops.”

Calling the owner of the quilt shop on the corner of Main Street in a rural community a small business woman could be insulting unless she really is slight in stature. You’d need to say something such as this: “Marge Jones exhibits the entrepreneurship of the small-business owners in North Dakota.”

You need the hyphen in these examples for a couple of reasons: to avoid confusion about your meaning and to form a compound modifier. A compound modifier is two or more words strung together to express a single concept. It adds a description to a noun, such as “crops” and “owners.”

, Information Specialist, 701-231-5391

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