Boot Camp Basics Grammar Lesson 4: May I Buy a Hyphen?

Boot Camp Basics Grammar Lesson 4: Hyphen Usage

May I Buy a Hyphen?

English has long depended on punctuation for providing clarity and eliminating ambiguity. For example, consider the confusion with these four words: an American history teacher.
Does the writer mean a history teacher who is an American? Or does the writer intend to describe a person who teaches American history? In this second case, we need to add a hyphen: “an American-history teacher.” Although we do not know if the teacher is an American, we do know that the person teaches American history. We would not add a hyphen if the intent is to describe a person who is an American and a teacher of some sort of history (an American history teacher).

Try these examples:

  1. a highly motivated person
  2. reports that are up to date
  3. first quarter earnings
  4. for profit insurance companies
  5. not so fine print

Before looking at the answers, let’s have a look as some easy-to-understand rules.

A Few Rules on Hyphen Usage

  • Use a hyphen with this pattern: (modifier + modifier) noun. Therefore, these examples are correct: “a well-written report,” “a 3-mL bottle,” a “long-term agreement.” In our previous sentences, we would write “first-quarter earnings,” “for-profit insurance companies,” and “not-so-fine print.” Notice in the insurance example that the base noun is “insurance companies.” In the third example, the base noun is not “fine print.”
  • Do not use a hyphen if the modifiers follow the noun. Thus, in Sentence 2, we would not hyphenate “up to date” because these words follow the noun; however, we would hyphenate “up-to-date” report. (You knew that point, didn’t you?)
  • Do not hyphenate in this case: (modifier ending in _ly + modifier) noun. In Sentence 1, the correct answer is “a highly motivated person.” Similarly, “a newly designed plan” and “a clearly outlined proposal” would not need hyphens. In these instances, the “ly” words are adverbs.

You will find that 90% of your questions about hyphens fall into one of the above three rules.


You may also have observed that hyphenated words occur in cases where there are no modifiers. So, try these examples:
Hyphen Usage

  1. intra-mural
  2. pro-active
  3. non-essential
  4. co-transfer

In the examples above, the hyphens have disappeared. Most English words containing either a prefix (co, pro, trans, etc.) or a suffix (able, fold, ful, ment) are written without hyphens. The exceptions occur when an omitted hyphen creates confusion. For example, “re-cover the chair” and “recover from an illness” show a verb with two distinct meanings.

Let’s end this lesson with an actual story from a major U.S. company. Imagine this scene: two lawyers are reviewing a document. One lawyer makes some changes but wants the other lawyer to review these changes and then sign off. When the second lawyer receives the document, she reads a note attached with these words: “Please review and resign today.” (I hope you are laughing at this point.) This note would not offend anyone if the hyphen had appeared with a hyphenated “re-sign.”

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