Important Hyphens in Business English Writing

Important Hyphens in Business English Writing

In effective business communications, it is often advised that messages should be accurate, brief, and clear. Hyphens play an important role in providing this clarity when businesses write their message in English. For example, you wouldn’t want your company to support an anti-animal cruelty charity.

An anti-animal cruelty charity probably doesn’t love animals, but an anti-animal-cruelty charity would.

This all has to do with the implications of where the hyphen is placed in sentences.

So, how can we learn to understand the meaning conveyed by hyphens and incorporate them into our written work? This article will help you.

Use a hyphen to join two or more words together to form a single adjective

People who believe in hate-free speech are quite different from those who hate free speech.

This example is similar to the anti-animal-cruelty example above. By using a hyphen, we can join two or more words to make one adjective. When this is done, it changes the meaning of the adjective.

So, if we believe in hate-free speech, we believe that speech should be free of hate.

However, if we hate free speech, we don’t like the idea that people can say what they want.

Have a look at the below examples for further clarity:

  • Is it a little-used office or a little used office?
    • A little-used office means that the office isn’t used often.
    • A little used office means that the office is both little and has been used before.
  • Are you a small-business owner or a small business owner?
    • A small-business owner means that the person owns a small business.
    • A small business owner means that the person is small and owns a business
  • Is it a light-green company car of a light green company car?
    • A light-green car is a car that has a light-green colour.
    • A light green car is a car that is light and green.
  • Is it a personal-data processor or a personal data-processor?
    • A personal-data processor is a processor that processes personal data.
    • A personal data-processor is a data processor that belongs to a person.

Note: Commas can also be used to reduce the ambiguity in these sentence, check out (not checkout) our blog Stop Making These Comma Mistakes.

As can be seen above, hyphens play an important role in this area when writing any type of business documentation or communication brief. Nevertheless, the influence of hyphens in prefixes is equally important.

Use a hyphen in prefixes to avoid awkward misunderstandings

A prefix is a word, letter, or number placed before a word. Examples of the most frequently used prefixes are re-, ex-, post-, pre-, self- etc. The hyphen is sometimes forgotten when using a prefix and this can have a significant effect.

When a colleague requests that you send an email (e-mail) again, should you reply that you re-sent the email or that you resent the email?

The prefix re- means to do something again. So, if the email was re-sent, it was sent again.

However, if you say ‘I resent the email’, it means that you are angry or upset about the email because that is the meaning of resent.

Further examples include:

  • If you were offered your contract again, would you re-sign or resign?
    • If you re-sign the contract, it will be singed again.
    • If you resign, you will voluntarily leave the job.
  • Your ex-colleagues all work together in a new company, would you say they re-formed or reformed?
    • If you say that they have re-formed, it means they have come together as a group again.
    • If you say that they have reformed, you are referencing improved changes to their attitudes and personalities.

Use a hyphen when using numbers in Business English writing

Were there 200-odd people at the conference or were there 200 odd people at the conference?

Using a number as a prefix and with a hyphen advises that there were about 200 people at the conference. Similar to the first explanation in this article, the hyphen joins two adjectives together.

If you said there were ‘200 odd people at the conference’, that would imply that there were 200 people at the conference who were strange.

The hyphen plays an important role when using numbers in communications. Look at the below examples of a workplace that is advertising shift work:

  • Twenty four-hour shifts
    • Twenty shifts that are four-hours long
  • Twenty-four hour shifts
    • Twenty-four shifts that are an hour long
  • Twenty-four-hour shifts
    • Shifts that last for twenty-four hours

These are big difference to the type of working hours advised by the company.

What about a study of 10 year-old children? This study involved 10 1-year-olds, whereas a study of 10-year-old children included children who were 10 years old. Always use hyphens for two number words from twenty-one to ninety-nine, fractions (e.g., one-eight = 1/8), and age when used as an adjective before a noun.

Use a hyphen for family titles

Probably not that relevant for a Business English article, unless you are speaking about your mother in Law rather than your mother-in-law.

Hyphen Rules in English Bestow Education

Or that great-aunt who isn’t actually a great aunt!


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Article written by Ciaran Donnelly

If you want to read more about the English language, have a look at:

Difficult English Words to Pronounce and Understand

Don’t remove my apostrophe or I’ll be ill