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To Hyphenate or Not To Hyphenate After a Noun: That is the Wrong Question

This job is long-term.

Do you need the hyphen here? Most authorities, rightly, say no. Don’t hyphenate a compound modifier when it follows a noun. Before a noun, yes (This is a long-term job), but after, no (This job is long term).

Most authorities also point out exceptions. They say, again rightly, that some compounds (blue-green, razor-sharp, risk-averse, time-sensitive, etc.) need a hyphen every time. When in doubt, they say, consult a dictionary or style guide.

Fine advice as far as it goes.

But most authorities don’t tell you what you most need to know. They don’t tell you that if you ask “Do I need a hyphen here?” after a noun, you’re almost always asking the wrong question. Read more…

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“To be” or not “to be”: A challenge

Here’s my challenge to you. Dump to be. Get rid of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have been, could be, will be, won’t be, and so on. At least avoid using them as main (linking) verbs, as in “Our product is superior.” Give your readers an action verb instead. Tell them what your superior product does.

Take special care to weed out there are, here is, and it’s in their various forms.

Limit to be verbs to these uses:

  • to support another verb (“You’re learning.”)
  • to comment on existence (“We think, therefore we are.”)
  • to emphasize an equation (“The medium is the message.”)
  • to play with a to be expression (“It’s lonely in the middle too.”)
  • to create an aesthetic effect, such as a cadence (“If you’re wasteful with words, why should I trust you with money?”)

When you recast to be sentences in creative ways, you’ll use fewer clichés, fewer adjectives, fewer adverbs, and in general fewer words. You’ll use more (and more forceful) verbs — the strongest part of speech there is. The strongest part of speech, period.

Try it. The difficulty might surprise you. Persistence will reward you.

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(I first published this article, in a slightly different form, in the spring 1991 issue of IABC Communicator, the newsletter of the Central New York chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators.)

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