Grammar Tip – Hyphens – Part I

BizWritingTip reader: “I was wondering if you can provide an abbreviated guide as to which words are hyphenated. I think you provided a short piece on this some time ago, but I since learned there are other rules also.”

BizWritingTip response: This is quite a complicated grammar question involving a number of rules and exceptions. Therefore, we’ll start with some of the basic guidelines in this BizWritingTip and continue the answer in subsequent mailings.

When two or more words come before a noun and serve as a single thought, they are called a compound adjective; and a hyphen is generally placed between the words.


A money-back guarantee (What kind of a guarantee is it? It’s a money-back one.)
An up-to-date manual (What kind of a manual is it? It’s an up-to-date manual.)
Long-term health care (What kind of health care is required? The patient requires long-term care.)

Note: If the sentence is written so the words do not precede a noun, then do not use a hyphen.

Examples (no hyphens)

We guarantee your money back.
The manual is up to date.

The care required will be for a long term.

Exceptions to the Rules

1. There are a number of adjective-noun combinations that are so well known, they do not require a hyphen.


Nuclear energy plant
Income tax return
Public relations manager
High school principal

This is why you need an up-to-date dictionary. It will help you determine the words that fall into this category.

2. When one of the words in the compound adjective is actually an adverb ending in “ly,” do not use a hyphen.


Environmentally friendly packaging
A poorly written report
A highly desired prize

We’ll talk about the exception to this rule in another blog post.