Global Lingo Blog

How and why to use hyphens

Media – Grammar Spotlight on Hyphens
2009.03.05

How and why to use hyphens

‘The coroner recorded an accidental death verdict.’

The BBC is not immune to grammatical mistakes. The above sentence means that the coroner accidentally recorded a verdict of death. It should read, ‘The coroner recorded an accidental-death verdict.’. This indicates that the verdict was of accidental death, not that the death verdict was accidental.

The hyphenation of compound adjectives is one of grammar’s more complex areas. Anne Taylor, one of Global Lingo’s expert editors, observes: ‘People seem to struggle because they worry more about what the words should look like, rather than thinking through the logic of the grammar. Hyphens are there to clarify language, not complicate it, and are quite intuitive once you know what you’re doing.’.

Her guidance on how to use hyphens is:

  • Always use hyphens for short compound adjectives, particularly those involving numbers (i.e. a one-kilo bag, a six-month contract, a 16th-century book, a 30-year-old man).
  • Always use hyphens if the two adjectives could create ambiguity (i.e. a little-used car or a little used-car, a third-world war or a third world war).
  • If little ambiguity would be created without a hyphen, there’s no need to be pedantic (i.e. the civil rights movement or a public sector account).
  • Do not use hyphens after adverbs ending in –ly (i.e. an amazingly talented performer). Hyphenation is optional for the adverb ‘well’ (i.e. a well-known route). Take care when adverbs are also adjectives (i.e. a hard-pressed employee or an ill-prepared plan).
  • Don’t hyphenate more than three words at once; try using inverted commas instead (i.e. a ‘will they, won’t they’ situation).
  • Be flexible: all that matters is communicating fluently and accurately. As the Oxford University Press notes, ‘If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.’.

Global Lingo’s team of experienced and professional multilingual editors are committed to such fluent and precise writing. Working on tens of millions of words in transcripts, reports and translations each year, they constantly have such questions of grammar and readability in mind to ensure Global Lingo’s clients always receive highly polished documents.

If you would like to know more about Global Lingo’s services, please don’t hesitate to contact a member of the team today.

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