Writers, even professionals, have a difficult time with hyphens, frequently perplexed about whether to use one — or, worse, blithely certain they’re inserting or omitting a hyphen correctly when doing so is wrong. Here are some sentences that should be bereft of hyphens.
1. “In the city’s first cop-killing since 1935, a detective was found shot at a residence.” There’s no reason to link the adjectival use of cop with the noun killing, unless killing is joining cop as a phrasal adjective, as in “The suspect is a cop-killing menace.” The correct usage is “In the city’s first cop killing since 1935, a detective was found shot at a residence.”
2. “A privately-built spacecraft will try a second flight in an effort to secure the prize.”
Writers frequently confuse adverbs ending in -ly, which are never connected to the verbs they modify, with adjectives, which are usually hyphenated in phrases like the one referred to in the previous item. Complicating the matter is that adjectival phrases including an adjective ending in -ly, such as grandfatherly-looking in “a grandfatherly-looking fellow,” are hyphenated before (and after) a noun.
The difference in these usages is that privately describes how the spacecraft was built; privately modifies built. In “grandfatherly-looking fellow,” however, the first two words are hyphenated to indicate that together, they modify fellow. The sentence should read, “A privately built spacecraft will try a second flight in an effort to secure the prize.”
3. “They prefer to dump the label for a more-effective brand.”
When a comparative or superlative modifier — less or least, or more or most — modifies an adjective, do not connect the terms with a hyphen: “They prefer to dump the label for a more effective brand.” (If the sentence is ambiguous without the hyphen, as in “The team had several more successful seasons,” revise the sentence according to the intended meaning: “The team had several seasons that were more successful” or “The team had several successful seasons after that.”)