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Hyphen Usage
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Writing Tune-up: Hyphen Usage
Someone once wrote that “anyone who takes the hyphen seriously will surely go mad.” It’s true! But there are some principles that we can use to make those “head-scratcher” decisions.

Actually, the hyphen causes most of its problems in two specific areas: compound modifiers and prefixes. Let’s look at these two cases.

A compound modifier consists of two or more words that together modify a noun. Here’s an example: “the state-of-the-art product.” When the compound modifier comes before the word it modifies, it is usually hyphenated. However, in many compound modifiers the first word is an adverb, and many adverbs are formed by adding “ly” to an adjective (e.g., “quick” and “quickly”). If a compound modifier comes before the word it modifies but the first word ends in “ly,” do not hyphenate (e.g., “the perfectly engineered component”). Now for the curve ball. When a compound modifier comes after the word it modifies (i.e., after a “state-of-being” verb such as “is” or “was”), the hyphen is also not used (e.g., “the house was well built”).

The other problem with the hyphen concerns prefixes such as “multi,” “anti,” “non,” etc. The general rule is to run the prefix together with the main word, but the Chicago Manual of Style also lists several cases in which a hyphen should be used to set off the prefix: (1) when the main word begins with a capital letter or a numeral (e.g., “non-Treasury bonds,” “pre-1914”); (2) when there is a doubling of a consonant or vowel (e.g., “non-native,” “meta-analysis”); and (3) when a prefix stands alone (e.g., “over- or underused”). My own suggestion is that you also consider readability. With prefixes attached to long, complicated words, it may be better to hyphenate just so the reader can visually grasp the term more easily. Take this test: Which is easier to read at a glance—“multidimensionality” or “multi-dimensionality”? I’ll let you decide—just remember to be consistent within your document.

I hope this helped—and I hope you will remember that I’m here to assist you in making your written communication “best in class.”