Section 3.9

Hyphens

Many business documents suffer from either overhyphenation or underhyphenation. Part of the problem is that hyphens are a tricky business; good dictionaries, books, and magazines vary in their treatment of them. Often hyphenation is a stylistic choice rather than a strict right-versus-wrong decision, though at other times there is less flexibility.

One thing many people don’t realize is how much excellent hyphenation guidance is readily available in dictionaries. If you are unsure whether to hyphenate something, try looking it up in a dictionary first. What you are looking for may not always be there, but you may get lucky!

For example, multiple dictionaries list full-time with a hyphen for both the adverb and adjective forms. You would therefore write:

Adverb

He works full-time.
 

Adjective

He has a full-time job.

Real estate, in contrast, can appear either as two independent words or as a single hyphenated term depending on whether it is being used as a noun or an adjective. Dictionaries often list the unhyphenated real estate as a noun and the hyphenated real-estate as an adjective. The difference is reflected in these two examples:

Noun

The fund manager invested in real estate.
 

but
 

Adjective

The fund manager invested in real-estate stocks.

The hyphenated examples above are easy ones, because they are so common that they have become fixtures in reference books and can easily be looked up. What about this example, though?

Joan’s shirt was stained with chemicals. She took her chemical-stained shirt to the cleaners.

You will probably not find chemical-stained in your dictionary. Thus, it is up to you to determine whether a hyphen is necessary. In this case, a hyphen is useful, as it shows that chemical describes stained, and that they are working together as a single adjective modifying shirt. Although the average reader is unlikely to be confused about the writer’s intended meaning in this case, one goal of hyphenation is to make word relationships such as these instantly clear to the reader.

In addition, omitting standard hyphens looks unprofessional and can in some cases actually create confusion as the reader struggles to figure out which words go together and which don’t. Consider the following example.

I noticed a fast talking man.

Is the man moving fast and talking at the same time, or is he a fast talker? The likelier interpretation is the second, but the ambiguity lies in the fact that fast can technically be an adjective modifying man. To make it easier for the reader to read the sentence correctly, a hyphen is preferable in this case.

I noticed a fast-talking man.

Now it is clear that fast modifies talking.

While neglecting necessary hyphens can add to a reader’s labor, it is also distracting for the reader if you hyphenate unnecessarily. Avoiding this common problem will help your writing appear more polished. Don’t put hyphens in words where they aren’t needed. For example:

Incorrect

Ken attended the semi-annual human resources conference.
 

Correct

Ken attended the semiannual human resources conference.
 

Incorrect

She needs to re-set the machine.
 

Correct

She needs to reset the machine.

In these cases, the writer could have simply looked up the well-established words semiannual and reset in any number of dictionaries and found them there, hyphen-free.

One of the most common types of hyphenation errors occurs when businesspeople automatically hyphenate verb and noun forms the same way. The following two sentences illustrate correct and incorrect verb formats.

Incorrect

The staff set-up the chairs.
 

Correct

The staff set up the chairs.

For the noun version, the form is different:

Correct

Has the staff completed the set-up?

  • Setup is also an acceptable noun form.

A comparable example involves follow-up (or followup), which can be used as a noun or an adjective, and follow up, for the verb form.

Noun

Lisa’s follow-up was inadequate.

  • Followup is also acceptable.


but
 

Verb

Lisa will follow up with the marketing director.

A final common example of overhyphenation appears after adverbs ending in ly, as in the following examples:

Incorrect

She bought a fully-refundable airline ticket.
 

Correct

She bought a fully refundable airline ticket.

The hyphen is unnecessary because fully is an adverb. As discussed in Section 1.5, adverbs can modify only verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. In this sentence, the only nearby word that fully could modify is the adjective refundable. It is not grammatically possible for fully to modify ticket, so reader confusion is not a concern.