Get to the Point
About Your Love Affair with the Hyphen
Some writers feel compelled to insert extra hyphens. Often they do it when they think they spot an adverb. Sometimes the offending word isn’t even functioning as an adverb; it’s part of a compound verb. Either way, put away the hyphen and step back slowly.
Heigh Ho the Derry-O the Adverb Stands Alone
Adverbs give us more information about other words in the sentence, namely verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Adverbs can tell us where, when or how. Many adverbs end in –ly.
The point is that adverbs are words, not parts of other words. So if your witness was beautifully dressed, perhaps that added credibility. Your witness was not beautifully-dressed. If you fully informed your client, you did a good job. You did not fully-inform the client. This issue only arises when the adverb precedes the word it is modifying. When the adverb follows or is separated by other words, the temptation to insert hyphens usually disappears. Lawyers seem happy to go without a hyphen when they are “informing fully” or “informing the client fully.” Resist the temptation to rearrange words to add a hyphen.
Pinning Down Compound Verbs
Two words make up a compound verb. (“Pin down” and “make up” are compound verbs.) The extra word often looks like an adverb, but isn’t. For example, if you’re really busy, you’re tied up, but you haven’t elevated. “Up” is not designating direction; it’s part of a two-word verb. Showing how one part of a case connects to another ties in the parts, but nothing is moving inside anything else. Because the parts of a compound verb are two separate words, do not insert a hyphen.
Some verbs do need a hyphen: “Color-code the choices by double-clicking them.” Other times hyphen-use is not wrong, but your writing will flow more smoothly without the hyphens. Try keystroking a word (such as “keystroking”) without the hyphen and see if it passes spellcheck. If it does, leave it; if it doesn’t, add the hyphen.
Compound Verbs Morphed into Nouns
Compound verbs don’t take hyphens. But when the construct has transmuted to a noun, you should use a hyphen.
- The doctor checked up on the patient vs. The doctor performed a check-up
- Jones is tied up in a meeting vs. There was a tie-up on the highway
- He let me down vs. What a let-down!
Grammarians identify different types of compound verbs, not to mention compound versions of other parts of speech. The one thing grammarians agree on is that when it comes to rules of hyphen-usage, they don’t agree.
What’s the take-away? Chill out and cut down the hyphen-usage. If you mess up, chalk it up to experience and move on.
Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers compensation cases throughout California. She is also available for legal freelance writing assignments. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and the author of four books published by the American Bar Association, including "Women Rainmakers' Best Marketing Tips, 3rd Edition." Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at WCMediator.com and on Twitter @WCMediator.
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