Are you using hyphens correctly – and does it matter?

Hyphens aren’t just for grammar nerds; they influence your content’s readability. So what are the rules? (And when can breaking them make your content clearer?)

lego figures crossing a road on a level crossing.

What exactly is a hyphen? 

According to Grammarly, it’s “a punctuation mark that’s used to join words or parts of words. It’s not interchangeable with other types of dashes.”

So far so good. But here’s the thing, we often get asked by clients about our hyphen use in their B2B content. Namely when it appears as if we’re being inconsistent in its use with compound modifiers.

Given how confusing the rules around correct hyphen use are, that’s totally understandable. But to help mitigate future confusion, we thought it would be fun to write a bite-sized hyphen primer.

The common modifier rule explained

A compound modifier is when two words work together to describe a noun.

Take a look at this sentence:

“The PlayStation 2 can perform real-time rendering of large 3D worlds.”

The words “real” and “time” work together to describe the rendering and so they make a compound modifier. When a compound modifier comes before the word that it’s modifying, it’s hyphenated.

So does that make the following sentence wrong?

“The PlayStation 2 can render large 3D worlds in real time.”

No. In this example the compound modifier comes after the word it’s modifying. No hyphen required. It’s as simple as that.

And helpfully, it’s a rule that applies to both UK and US English.

However, like any rule in the English language, there are exceptions – and they come in the form of adverbs.

Some adverbs do follow the compound modifier rule: a fast-acting ninja for example.

The exception comes when an adverb ends “ly” – like in these highly complicated grammar rules. (On the subject of highly complicated grammar rules, you don’t use a hyphen when compounding “very”. But let’s not get into that – this has already become a very convoluted section.)

What about prefixes?

As a rule, you don’t need a hyphen for prefixes. Take restart, antimatter, misunderstand, disappear – none of these words are hyphenated.

You may be thinking, what about the likes of “re-enter”’ or “anti-intellectual” – why do they always have hyphens? That’s because the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel, and without a hyphen, they just look bizarre: reenter, antiintelectual – horrible. This is definitely one of those rules that’s about making writing easier to read.

The same can be said of compound words that may mislead or confuse the reader without a hyphen. In some cases, it may be safer to use a hyphen even if it breaks the compound modifier rule, such as:

“Our new cloud solution is super cost-effective.”

Ideally, you shouldn’t be using a hyphen there, but without it, it might be a little tricky to read.

And sometimes, your hyphenation choices can alter the meaning of your sentence:

“Radix Communication interviews mouse hunting estate agent.”

And then this one:

“Radix Communications interviews mouse-hunting estate agent.”

Just to state the obvious: the mouse was hunting the estate agent in the former, and the estate agent was hunting the mouse in the latter. And as you can now tell, correct hyphen use matters. So be vigilant, or risk incoherence.

No, no, no – that’s not right

As far as we know, that’s about all there is to it. But opinions, especially on subjects of punctuation, vary. If you feel we need putting to rights, that’s fine; tweet us @radixcom.

And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter, so you don’t miss out on any of our copywriting tips.

Ben P

Ben is a versatile writer who came to Radix with years of experience as a marketing copywriter and, before that, as an entertainment journalist. With a keen ability to ask the right questions at the right time, Ben is adept at digging into complex topics and finding high-value hooks that help make high-impact content.

More posts you might like…

What is an em dash, and when should you use it?

The em dash is an underused, and often misunderstood, piece of punctuation. But it’s a valuable one—if you can get it right.

In defence of the semicolon – probably B2B’s least favourite punctuation mark

Kieran explains why the semicolon deserves your full support – and how to deploy it to (subtly) devastating effect in your B2B marketing copy.

Create B2B tech marketing content that really works

Get regular advice and insights from our team of specialist B2B tech writers and account managers, direct to your inbox.