I edit columns that financial advisors write in their newsletters and see the writing of various advisors all the time, so I’m speaking from experience. Improper punctuation is the second leading type of mistake financial advisors make when writing their newsletters, and my guess is it spills over into other forms of communication, such as brochures, letters, reports, etc.
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In fairness, advisors are probably not any worse at punctuation than other people, although the mathematical orientation of advisors perhaps makes them more likely to be deficient at punctuation. But if punctuation is a problem for advisors, then hyphenation is a crisis. It’s amazing how many advisors don’t know how to use hyphens properly. In view of that, this blog post will focus on how to use hyphens properly.
Let’s start with some basics. English language punctuation marks include: Ampersand (&), apostrophe (’), colon (:), comma (,), dash (–), ellipsis (…), exclamation point (!), hyphen (-), parentheses ( ), period (.), question mark (?), quotation marks (“ ”) and semicolon (;).
Most advisors don’t have problems with periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points and quotation marks. But they do have problems trying to use the other punctuation marks correctly.
Here are some definitions and examples as given by the grammarians and editors who helped compile The Associated Press Stylebook:
Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words. Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion. (Small-business owner, but health care center.)
Some guidelines concerning usage of hyphens:
Avoid Ambiguity. Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted: The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.) Another example: He recovered his health. He re-covered the leaky roof.
Compound Modifiers. When a compound modifier—two or more words that express a single concept—precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly: a first-quarter touchdown, a bluish-green dress, a full-time job, a well-known man, a better-qualified woman, a know-it-all attitude, a very good time, an easily remembered rule.
Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun: The team scored in the first quarter. The dress, a bluish green, was attractive on her. She works full time. His attitude suggested that he knew it all.
But when a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken. The play is second-rate.
The principle of using a hyphen to avoid confusion explains why no hyphen is required with very and -ly words. Readers can expect them to modify the word that follows. But if a combination such as little-known man were not hyphenated, the reader could logically be expecting little to be followed by a noun, as in little man. Instead, the reader encountering little known would have to back up mentally and make the compound connection on his own.
Two-Thought Compounds. serio-comic, socio-economic.
Compound Proper Nouns And Adjectives. Use a hyphen to designate dual heritage: Italian-American, Mexican-American. No hyphen, however, for French Canadian or Latin American.
Avoid Duplicated Vowels, Tripled Consonants. Examples: anti-intellectual, pre-empt, shell-like.
Use a hyphen to separate figures in odds
, some fractions
and some vote tabulations
. When large numbers must be spelled out, use a hyphen to connect a word ending in -y
to another word: twenty-one, fifty-five
Suspensive Hyphenation. The form: He received a 10- to 20-year sentence in prison.
If you still don’t have a print copy
of The Associated Press Stylebook
or an online subscription
, consider getting one If the individual entry you want to look up is not listed in the stylebook, use the first listed entry in Webster's New World College Dictionary.
Prefixes and suffixes present a world of confusion all by themselves. We’ll write about them later.