Pet Peeves, Revisited – Hyphens

Does every editor have pet peeves? Probably. Every full-time editor I’ve worked with eventually asked me to stop doing X at some point, and I guess I’m no different. I’m just sharing my feedback via blog. I WANT people to get better at their writing so that I might better appreciate the reading experience. That’s my story, anyhow, and I’m sticking to it. Today, rather gripe about the misuse of the apostrophe, I thought I’d take some time to address another piece of punctuation that gets abused, misplaced, or forgotten: the hyphen. I’m here to help, really!

Situations That Require a Hyphen

Proper Nouns

There are several situations where a hyphen is always used, regardless of grammatical situation:

  • Trade names: Coca-Cola, Williams-Sonoma, Harley-Davidson
  • Spelled-out numerals: twenty-two, forty-seven, ninety-nine
  • Location names: Mason-Dixon Line, Guinea-Bisseau, Chicago-O’hare International Airport
  • Surnames: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Olivia Newton-John, Margaret Bourke-White

However, surnames are no longer ALWAYS hyphenated. Some individuals simply add the last name of their spouse to the end of their current last name. When in doubt, ASK.

Compound Words

There are multiple examples of compound nouns out there, for example:

  • Shampoo-conditioner
  • Transmitter-receiver (sometimes shortened as transceiver)
  • Writer-editor

Technological Nomenclature

Some “e” (for electronic) terms are still hyphenated, probably because they haven’t been absorbed into the vocabulary as quickly:

  • e-commerce
  • e-ticketing

Some companies get around these situations by creating a trade name: eCommerce, eTicketing, etc.

Where things start to get tricky is with compound adjectives. These include:

  • Element-level, e.g., All element-level risks are assigned to an element manager.
  • Component-level, e.g., We are using AS9100 practices for our component-level quality standards.
  • Mission-specific, e.g., Mission-specific hardware for Project MORPHEUS includes anvils, time bombs, jet skis, and a giant sloth.

Situations That Do Not Require a Hyphen

Sentence Objects

HOWEVER–and here is where I lose and confuse the engineers–if the terms in the previous section are used as the object of a verb, they are NOT hyphenated:

  • All risks will be assigned at the element level.
  • We are managing quality standards down to the component level.
  • Anvils, jet skis, and time bombs are not standard equipment, but are instead mission specific.

“WHY?” I can hear someone scream. And my answer is, “I don’t know, but those are the rules!” And the rule is, if you’re using a two-word phrase to describe something (i.e., as an adjective), you hyphen it, but if those same two words are being written as the object of a verb, they are NOT compound and hence don’t need the hyphen. For example, with “element level,” the word “level” is a noun and “element” is an adjective.

Technological Nomenclature

For reasons that elude me, sometimes engineers (and their managers) hyphenate words that do not require hyphens and have not for decades. Examples include:

  • Subcontractor
  • Online
  • Email
  • Subsystem

Other “Mixed” Situations

Verbs are also tricky. A common term in the business world that can be hyphenated (or not) based on use is “follow up.”

  • I will follow up with you about that memo tomorrow.
  • I appreciate your follow-up on that memo.

What’s the difference? In the first sentence, follow up is being used as a verb. In the second sentence, follow-up, while technically a verb, is being used as the object (noun) that another verb is acting upon.

Other Situations

This post has not been comprehensive by any means. I did not include the hyphen’s longer cousins, for example, the en dash and em dash. (And why aren’t those two words hyphenated? That would seem to be good candidates as compound words. However, in this case, the first word, en or em, is being used an adjective while dash is the noun; hence, it is not a compound noun.)

The point here is simply to make you aware of how grammatical structure dictates punctuation in English. To those of you for whom English is a second language, I am VERY sorry. This is the ocean in which I swim, and I’m still learning things about it. I am not a grammarian, I am a practicing editor. And while it would probably serve me well to get to know more of the “rules,” I learn more by doing and making mistakes of my own. So shall it be with you.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Pet Peeves, Revisited – Hyphens

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks, Bart, for this expert-level, up-to-date advice. I appreciate being kept up to date, especially at such an expert level.

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