I see a lot of confusion over hypenated words like “follow-up,” “up-to-date,” “$40,000-a-year salary,” etc.
Before we dive into that, we will have a very basic grammar lesson. I’ve admitted before that I am NOT a grammar guru and these parts of speech sometimes confuse me, so we will get basic here (for my sake if nothing else!). An adjective answers the questions what kind, how many, or which one. An adjective modifies the meaning of a noun or a pronoun. A noun is a person, place, object, idea, quality, or activity. A verb is a word that expresses an activity or a state of being. An adverb answers the question when, where, why, in what manner, or to what extent. Now that that’s out of the way, on to our discussion.
The basic rule is that where the word that may need hyphenation serves as an adjective phrase describing a noun, it is hypenated. Where it serves as a verb and adverb, it does not get hypenated.
- The follow-up report will be on your desk in the morning. (Here, follow-up [adjective phrase] describes the kind of report [noun] so is hypenated.)
- I will follow up [verb/adverb] with a report [noun] on business done so far this month. (In this sentence, follow up is a verb phrase–it is the action I will take on the report.)
- The up-to-date computer program was able to do a lot more and more quickly.
- The information is as up to date as possible with the information I have.
- The new job afforded him a $40,000-a-year salary.
- The salary at his new job was $40,000 a year.
You would also hyphenate a compound adjective when it occurs before a noun where those words are not in their “normal” order or “normal” form and need the hyphen to hold the words together. For instance:
- The high-tech equipment makes my job easier. (It is equipment that reflects a high level of technology.)
- I don’t envy speakers on the rubber-chicken circuit. (A speaking circuit where banquet food [usually “rubber chicken”] is served to participants.)
Where these phrases appear other than before the noun but are in an inverted order and not in a “normal” order, retain the hyphen.
- The new equipment was very high-tech. (The equipment reflected a high level of technology.)
- My purchase was tax-exempt. (The purchase was exempt from taxes.)
The same basic rule applies to compounds with numbers:
- A 12-story building. (A building of 12 stories.)
- A sixth-grade student. (A student in the sixth grade.)
If you can’t figure it out, find the noun and if the words potentially in need of a hyphen are describing that noun, it should be hyphenated. If they are acting as the sentence’s verb and adverb, do not hyphenate.
Hopefully that helps you decide when to hyphenate (and when NOT to!).