Hyphens are helpful little things that aid in reader comprehension. Although confusion is not at great risk in phrases like “sharp-dressed man” (though the omission of the hyphen suggests that the passage literally refers to a dressed man who is sharp) others, such as “small-business owner,” can at the very least conjure distracting imagery if they omit the hyphen.
And such hyphenated word strings as “song-and-dance man” and “customer-relationship-management software” help keep the reader focused, though judiciously relaxing a phrase is often a welcome solution: The former phrase isn’t exhausting to read, but how about “software for customer-relationship management” in lieu of the latter?
On the other hand, sins of commission regarding hyphenation are as endemic as those of omission. Here are examples of superfluous usage:
1. “Mergers and acquisitions ground to a near-halt in 2001.”
“Near-halt” and its cousins “near-disaster” and “near-miss” are results of a misunderstanding: When near modifies another adjective, it should be hyphenated to its teammate (“near-fatal accident”), but a hyphen serves no use in linking near in isolation directly to a noun.
2. “The recently-launched firm survived by limiting itself to modestly-scaled projects.”
Adverbs ending in -ly never are never hyphenated, though suffix-free adverbs are: “longer-lasting freshness.”
3. “The mostly flat paved trail is an inline-skater’s dream.”
There was a time when compound nouns that are now open or closed, such as “income tax” or “taskmaster,” were likely to be hyphenated. That usage, however, is now considered archaic (with some puzzling exceptions such as mind-set and life-form). Safely assume that just about any such linkage you see is incorrect — though, to be safe, I offer the inverse of a piece of all-purpose advice: Distrust, but verify.
4. “She realized that the police department was less-than-dedicated to assisting her.”
Step back and ponder what benefit of comprehension accrues from creating the wagon train of “less-than-dedicated,” then excise the offending hyphens.
5. “The starting center is seven-feet tall.”
The necessity of hyphenating physical dimensions in phrasal adjectives (“the seven-foot-tall center”) confuses many writers into believing that any phrasing having to do with size or weight or distance must be linked. “Seven-foot-tall center” is hyphenated so as not to suggest that the tall center has seven feet, but no such ambiguity attends “seven feet tall.”