What Does My Hyphenation Say About Me?

Your Highness:

It seems like such a small thing, but it’s wreaking havoc with my writing: I have no control over the hyphen. This is particularly bad because I have just accepted a new job as marketing manager for a technology start-up. Startup? Start up? I’m supposed to be a decision-maker. Or decision maker. You see what I mean. Please help.

My dear Subject,

I agree—the hyphen can be quite difficult to use correctly, especially in business writing. Its effects are subtle, and some of the rules are not rules at all but stylistic preferences. Nevertheless, a hyphen can possess power far beyond its size, as illustrated in Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker piece on the decades-old Eurovision song contest. Lane writes of one contestant, “This is a woman, after all, who, according to the official program, has already been voted ‘Golden Voice of Rostov,’ ‘Miss Pearl of Don,’ and, with a carefully placed hyphen, ‘Vice-Miss of the Caucusus.’”

One hesitates to even form a mental picture of her hyphenless doppelganger; what a Vice Miss might do sans hyphen is best left to the imagination of hardier souls than I.

But fear not. Just as, with practice, one may distinguish Waterford from ordinary cut crystal with a simple touch, you too can tune your eye and ear to the subtle heft of the hyphen.

First, a few general points:

•  A hyphen is not a dash. The hyphen ( – ) joins two or more parts of a hyphenated word. In contrast, the longer em or en dash ( – or — ) is a piece of sentence punctuation that indicates a sudden pause or shift in the text.

•  Hyphens are used in several very particular cases—in written out fractions (three-fourths), with prefixes when their absence might create confusion or make the resulting word difficult to pronounce (re-press vs. repress, anti-ordination, doll-like, etc.). Such situations are best handled on a case-by-case basis with a quick visit to Webster’s or the Chicago Manual of Style.

•  The aspect of hyphenation most difficult for most of us to parse is actually resolved by two simple rules:

When two words make up a compound that modifies a noun, if the words fall before the noun, use a hyphen. If they come after, don’t. So: The hunting scene was well displayed in a hand-carved frame.


Don’t use a hyphen with -ly. The exquisitely framed piece was given pride of place over the mantelpiece; unfortunately, the painting itself was less than exquisite, containing as it did a horse with five carefully drawn legs.

And now for the art of the thing:

•  In general, hyphens can help readers distinguish among multiple grammatical forms of a word. For example, start up is a verb: Tiring of her court duties, Felicity decided to start up an adorable little business.


Start-up is most often used as an adjective (the hyphen gives us a clue to this form): Her start-up company would produce custom tiaras for dogs, plus the occasional special-occasion canine bonnet for weddings and garden parties. And startup is a noun of relatively recent coinage: The startup really took off when the Social Register website featured a little amethyst number worn by the editor’s Bichon Frise.

•  Hyphens are also used when new words are first coined or become popular, then disappear as words become familiar (e-mail becomes email, on-line becomes online, etc.). The venerable Chicago Manual of Style, in its most recent 15th edition, allows for “occasional exceptions when the closed spellings have become widely accepted, pronunciation and readability are not at stake, and keystrokes can be saved.” Quite generous, yes?

•  Even though it can be useful in complex or technical text, English is moving toward less hyphenation—due in part to coinage of so many new words. It once took decades for motor-car to become motor car, then simply car; now we go from e-mail to email in a few short years. (Be sure to keep your social secretary up to date on such trends; one should never appear stodgy!)

•  Even where the presence or absence of a hyphen does not change the meaning of a sentence, your organization should develop a consistent hyphenation style linked to overall voice and detailed in the company style guide. Include a list of product names and industry terms for which hyphenation may be an issue. If you continue to build your list each time you encounter (and resolve) a question of hyphenation, the grail of clarity and consistency will be yours.

Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?

Yours precisely,

The Grammar Queen

By Lisa Stonestreet