Hyphenation help for business writers


Every professional wants to produce grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated business communications, in everything from email to blog posts. And yet, those little nit-picky issues that you just don’t know how to deal with can pose a challenge. Hyphenation is a frequent point of confusion; since some compound words call for a hyphen and others don’t, it’s easy to make inadvertent errors here. Luckily, the hyphenation protocol is fairly straightforward, although at first glance it certainly doesn’t seem that way:

  • Some words are mandatory
  • Some words are optional
  • Some words are never hyphenated
  • There are exceptions

That clears the matter right up! Well, it probably doesn’t, so let’s try again.

When combining two words to create one term that describes something else, you must use a hyphen: That twenty-ton airplane looks adorable with the sky-blue paint job. A medium-rare steak served as her well-earned reward. What kind of airplane is it? The twenty-ton kind! Note that some of the individual components of the hyphenated compounds are adjectives and others are nouns. We’re combining them into one new word that, in its compound form, is serving as an adjective to modify the nouns airplane, paint job, steak and reward.

Some combinations become so familiar that the hyphenated compound word eventually becomes its own, unhyphenated word: bookkeeping, followup, and desktop are all examples of words that can be hyphenated, as they were originally, but do not strictly demand hyphenation. Followup is tricky though, because (and this is an important point) it should not be hyphenated or combined at all when it is used as a verb.

“Please follow up with Rufus and Elvis,” is correct. So is “I’ve scheduled a followup meeting with Rufus and Elvis,” and so is “The follow-up meeting has been moved to Friday.” However, “I still need to followup on that,” is wrong, wrong, wrong. Similar compound words/verbal phrases include log in/login, check out/checkout, lay out/layout, stand up/standup, and myriad others.

Two helpful strategies can help you determine whether you’re dealing with one word or two:

  1. Focus on how the term is used in the sentence. If it’s serving as an adjective or a noun, it’s one compound word (and you may feel free to hyphenate or not in many cases). If it functions as a verb, then it’s two separate words with no hyphen.
  2. Look at where the term is relative to the word it describes. If the descriptor comes first (“a twelve-percent increase”) it’s one compound word, whether or not you hyphenate it. If the compound descriptor follows the word it describes, don’t hyphenate (“profitability increased by twelve percent”).

Here’s another frequently confused point (but not a frequently-confused point): two words that are used together to modify or describe another word are not hyphenated when they include an adverb. Words that end in ‘ly’ are usually adverbs (languidly, excitedly, urgently). Hyphens exist to indicate connection and thereby avoid confusion about what goes with what. In the case of adverbs that end in ‘ly,’ there’s no confusion and therefore no need for a hyphen. Other adverbs follow the same rule, except…

The word ‘well,’ when used as part of a compound word that describes a noun, does take a hyphen. A well-meant effort, a well-turned phrase, a well-honed skill…all these and other terms like them are appropriately hyphenated, even though ‘well’ is an adverb. There’s a bit of leeway here, but most experts do suggest hyphenating if the term precedes the word it modifies.

So you see? Some words demand a hyphen, some allow the option, some must not be hyphenated, and there are exceptions. Simple!

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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their target audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on the websites of over a dozen Top 100 Accounting Firms and in Accounting Today, Forbes and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!