The Pesky Hyphen

business writing tipsThis post is by Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene, authors of “The Business Style Handbook, An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job.

Clear, concise writing is always a priority in the business world and, to achieve that standard, both the structure and language of our communications need to be tight.

One of the tools we have at our disposal to establish clarity in written language is punctuation. A properly placed apostrophe, comma or hyphen can bring comprehensibility to an otherwise cryptic phrase or sentence. Conversely, improper punctuation can confuse the reader, which is not something you ever want to do.

When it comes to the hyphen, knowing when to use it can be daunting, even for professional writers.  In a survey we conducted of communications executives at Fortune 500 companies for “The Business Style Handbook,” many respondents noted that they often have to turn to their stylebooks to check hyphenation on particular words.

Here are some guidelines for using the hyphen:

  • To link two or more words that serve as an adjective: collective-bargaining talks, cross-border transaction, 28-year-old manager, $4 billion-dollar company, 2-for-1 stock split. But don’t go overboard. If the meaning of a phrase is clear without a hyphen, don’t use one: best seller list, real estate agent, income tax form, thank you note, foreign exchange rates.
  • To join two or more words to form a single idea: African-American.
  • To separate double letters: semi-independent, pre-existing.
  • To avoid writing words that may be unclear without a hyphen: re-form.
  • To form words with the prefixes ex- and self-: ex-banker, self-explanatory.
  • To join a single letter to another word: X-rated, y-axis, T-shirt.
  • To form a title that joins two equal nouns: secretary-treasurer.
  • To avoid repetition at the end of a word or number: The 65- and 66-year old employees retired last week. The second- and third-quarter results will be released next month. The medium- and long-term goals must be linked. (These are called suspensive hyphens.)
  • To spell out numbers when they cannot be written as numerals, for instance, at the beginning of a sentence, as in Twenty-five.
  • To spell out fractions in amounts less than 1 in text. Approximately one-third of employees work in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • To break words at the end of lines by syllable.

Also remember that a common error is to use hyphens in phrases with the word very and adverbs ending in -ly. Don’t use hyphens with such phrases: eagerly awaited proposal, newly elected board member, highly controversial report.

And note that many word combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they come after the noun: a full-time job versus She worked full time.

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