Hyphenation How-To's

Native speakers and non-natives alike puzzle over English punctuation. Is it "walk in" or "walk-in"? Today, Alan gives tips on how to use the hyphen, evil cousin to the apostrophe.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the problem people have with apostrophes—both native speakers and English learners.  Today, I’d like to talk about the evil cousin to apostrophes: the hyphen.

If you are a non-native speaker of English, don’t worry.  Native speakers often get hyphens wrong in their everyday lives.

So here’s a quick quiz.  Which of these two sentences needs a hyphen?

1) You’ll need to follow up with Melissa on the status of the project.

2) Melissa will appreciate your follow up on the status of the project.

So, should both sentences get a hyphen?  Just one?  Neither?

The answer is: just one.

Sentence 2) gets a hyphen because follow-up in that sentence is a noun.  Hint: you know it's a noun if it has words like “your” or “my” or “the” in front of it.

Sentence 1) doesn’t get a hyphen because follow up there is a verb.  Hint: you know it’s a verb because it has “to” in front of it.  Verbs can also change form, like following up, follows up, followed up, etc. 

The other clue is to listen to the word stress.  When these hyphenated nouns are spoken, you hear stress on the first word: I appreciate your FOLLOW-up.

If it’s a verb, you will hear stress on the second word: I’m glad you followed UP.

There are lots of other examples in English, for example:

            the SET-up vs. to set UP

            the BREAK-through vs. to break THROUGH

If you’re still not sure you get the difference, that’s okay.  We’ll give you lots more to practice on our What’s Up? blog.  Give them a RUN-through.  You’ll feel smarter after you’ve run THROUGH a few of them.

EXTRA PRACTICE.  Instructions: Add a hyphen where you think one belongs.  The answers are below.

1a. The engineering staff is in a time crunch to scale__up the new product.

1b. They are worried they'll run out of time for the scale__up.


2a. The hair salon welcomes walk__ins.

2b. Even if you don't have an appointment, you are welcome to walk__in and get a haircut.


3a. These prices are a huge rip__off!  [= cheating or overcharging people]

3b. I can't believe these guys ripped__off my grandmother!


4a. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a run__off election will be held for the top two vote-getters.

4b. The top two candidates will run__off in a special election next month.


5a. I think Bob will eventually get fired for goofing__off so much at work. [= wasting time, doing things other than work]

5b. Bob is such a goof__off.  I'm surprised he gets any work done at all.




Hyphens: 1b, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5b

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.