Hooked on Hyphens


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

April 16, 2020

Hooked on Hyphens

“The commonplace hyphen is everywhere and nowhere, a generic entity oft subbed for the real thing (i.e., the em- or en-dash), used willy-nilly, thrown in when one feels like it, as if it's salt or pepper being added to a stew. It is not! It is a hyphen.

— Jen Doll

We bet you didn’t wake up this morning expecting to contemplate hyphens. If you did, well, eTips might be your spirit animal.

Hyphens certainly aren’t making it on many people’s Mount Rushmore of punctuation. Dictionary.com doesn’t even include the hyphen in its list of six major punctuation marks.

When hyphens are used, they sometimes get confused with dashes. Other times, they are scattered about with no particular purpose. These concerns led to this epic rant by Jen Doll of The Atlantic

We want to make hyphen usage less confusing. While you can always refer to your Write for Business Guide for complete hyphen rules, this tip will focus on some common hyphen uses and abuses.

What is the purpose of a hyphen?

A hyphen (-) usually forms compound words. The hyphen signals to readers that the words it connects must be understood as a whole.

The addition of a hyphen can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence, as in this classic example:

The man eating lobster refused to wear a bib.
The man-eating lobster refused to wear a bib.

The hyphen here turns predator into prey.

What general rules should I follow?

When deciding whether a hyphen is necessary, ask yourself, “Does (or would) the hyphen clarify the meaning of my sentence?” If yes, keep (or add) it.

Do use hyphens to join two or more words that form a single-thought adjective before a noun.

The job includes employee-funded benefits.
Some businesses are creating shelter-in-place policies for employees.

Do not hyphenate a compound adjective if it follows the noun it describes.

The job includes benefits that are employee funded.
The policy is shelter in place.

Do not use a hyphen when the first word is an adverb ending in ly.

Try to avoid the freshly painted conference room.

Do use hyphens to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters.

I wish to resign.
I wish to re-sign.

(Do you want to quit or sign again? The hyphen transforms the meaning.)

Do not stack modifiers.

Beware of sentences overloaded with hyphens—a sign of stacked modifiers. Too many modifiers before a noun make a mouthful of a sentence:

As part of the multi-faceted cost-containment e-commerce strategy we unveiled last week in the face of coronavirus-driven revenue-decline statements, a $2 million reduction in compensation was enacted for the senior-division high-salary employees.

You can fix the problem in one of three ways:

  • remove one or more of the modifiers (are they all really necessary?) 
  • move one of the modifiers after the noun
  • break the sentence into two smaller sentences

In the face of revenue decline due to coronavirus, we have unveiled a $2 million reduction in compensation for high-salary employees.

Do use a hyphen to join compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine when they must be written out.


Do not use hyphens in place of dashes.

Learn more about dashes.

Choose Your Resources

These hyphen rules come from the Write for Business Guide, which aligns with the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Other resources may provide different guidance. To minimize confusion, stick with one guide and one dictionary.


Play the Editor!

Study the following sentences. Decide if the highlighted portions require a hyphen. (Scroll down to see our answers.)

  1. Our once starry eyed intern has turned into an essential member of our operation.  
  2. Twenty five spaces are available in the online training. 
  3. The recently returned figures indicate we're in fine financial standing. 
  4. After a client spilled coffee on the lounge sofa, we decided to recover the upholstery. 
  5. The rules are quite clear cut. 
  6. Our new office includes state of the art technology. 
  7. However, I wouldn't call the cubicles state of the art
  8. A newly formed committee will focus on economic stimulus efforts. 

Get More Support

Refer to your Write for Business Guide and past eTips for answers to your punctuation questions.


Editor’s Recommendations

  1. Yes; hyphenate starry-eyed since it serves as a single-thought adjective before intern
  2. Yes; use a hyphen to join the words in compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine 
  3. No; a hyphen is not needed when the first modifying word is an adverb ending in ly
  4. Yes; unless the couch was literally missing, adding a hyphen to re-cover clarifies that you need to place a new cover on the stained couch. 
  5. No; the single-thought adjective comes after the noun. 
  6. Yes; hyphenate state-of-the-art since it serves as a single-thought adjective before technology
  7. No; in this instance, state of the art is not hyphenated because it comes after the noun it describes, cubicles.  
  8. Newly formed should not be hyphenated since the first modifying word is an adverb ending in lyEconomic-stimulus should be hyphenated since it serves as a single-thought adjective before efforts