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Grammar Tips & Tidbits


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One Word or Two? Part I


Today's tip is a follow-up to the two-part series on hyphens from a few weeks ago. Let's start with a brain-teaser!

Do you think the following sentence is correct or incorrect?

      It is essential that you follow up with potential employers; if

      nothing else, be sure to send follow-up letters after every interview.

You may be surprised to learn that this sentence is actually correct, although it looks inconsistent with the words follow up appearing in two different formats. Believe it or not, there is a method to the madness! In the first half of the sentence, the words follow up form a verb phrase; in the second half, follow-up is a compound adjective. Even though the words are exactly the same, they are used differently, so different rules apply in each case.

We could spend days discussing how to hyphenate words in relation to their parts of speech, but I'm afraid that would put us all to sleep! Instead, I'll give you a few rules of thumb to follow, which are based on the guidelines in the tenth edition of The Gregg Reference Manual

Rule #1: When phrases that function as a unit (like follow up) are used before nouns in order to describe them, they are typically hyphenated or solid. When the same words fall elsewhere in a sentence, the hyphen usually can be dropped, but this varies.


●   Before noun:  I've asked a well-known doctor to attend next week.
●   Elsewhere:  The doctor is well known in her field.

●   Before noun:  My twenty-year-old son is coming home from college.
●   Elsewhere:  My son is twenty years old.

●   Before noun:  I'd like to purchase a high-speed printer.
●   Elsewhere:  Set the printer to high speed.

●   Before noun:  He lives in the penthouse of that fifty-story building.
●   Elsewhere:  That building has fifty stories.

●   Before noun:  What is the worst-case scenario?
●   Elsewhere:  What is the worst case you expect to see?

●   Before noun:  Her third-grade students are going on a field trip.
●   Elsewhere:  Her students are in the third grade.

Can you see the difference? Each of the hyphenated words occurs before a noun and serves to describe that noun. But remember, this is just a general rule. It won't apply in every single situation, but if you use it, you'll be correct most of the time.

In the next tip, I'll reveal Rule #2 and #3, which will give you additional ways to identify words that should (or shouldn't) be hyphenated. You can view the next tip here.

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1. Sabin, William A. The Gregg Reference Manual. Tenth Edition.
         New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2005, pp. 214-239.