Hyphenate Here, Hyphenate There, Everywhere We Hyphenate!

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 kindhow 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 whenwherewhyin 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.)
  • 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!).

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate: That is the Question

Another confusing proofreading issue is hyphenated words. This is particularly true when the words are sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not depending on how the word is used. There are, of course, rules regarding hyphenation.
  • Always hyphenate ex, elect, and designate when attaching them to titles. For example “Ex-President Carter.”
  • You can also use “then” before a title to indicate that the person was acting in that capacity at the time you are describing. Used in this way, it will be hyphenated when it would be confusing otherwise.
    • Then Governor Mecham was impeached in Arizona. This could be read to mean that Governor Mecham’s impeachment happened next.
    • Then-Governor Mecham was impeached in Arizona. This would be read to mean that Governor Mecham was acting governor at the time he was impeached.
  • Family titles starting with grand (such as grandmother) are written without a hyphen; however, family titles starting with great (like great-grandmother) are written WITH a hyphen for each great (for instance her great-great-grandmother).
  • When used as nouns, terms such as African Americans or French Canadians are not hyphenated. When they are used as adjectives such as African-American politicians or French-Canadian residents, they would be hyphenated.
  • Fractions written out would be hyphenated, such as one-third and three-fifths.
  • Compound numbers such as thirty-five and six hundred eighty-four should be hyphenated.
  • An age that modifies a noun is hyphenated.
    • My 40-year-old neighbor has three barking dogs.
  • An age that is an adjective phrase that comes after the noun is not hyphenated
    • My granddaughter will be 13 years old soon.
    • The twins are two years old.

The biggest hyphenation issue that I see consistently is third party. Hyphenating third party depends on how it is used. 

  •  When third party is used as a modifier, it should be hyphenated.
    • The bill for the third-party vendor was past due.
  • It would NOT be hyphenated when not used as a modifier.
    • The bill was sent to the third party for payment directly to the vendor.

For an easy test to see if the phrase is a modifier that requires a hyphen, try each word alone with the noun. If it doesn’t make sense, you need a hyphen. If it DOES make sense, then you do not use a hyphen:

  • In the example above, third vendor does not make sense so third-party vendor should be hyphenated.
  • She prefers high-quality clothing. High clothing does not make sense so high-quality should be hyphenated.