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Editing Tip: Hyphenation in Academic Writing

When should you hyphenate? This tip provides guidelines.

The hyphen (-) is used to join multiple words into a compound. The main goal of hyphenating a term is to prevent confusion on the part of the reader. Some hyphenated words are found in the dictionary, but others are simply formed by convention. Here are some guidelines for deciding whether to hyphenate a term that you are using in your writing. If you are unsure, it can be helpful to consult Google Scholar to see if the hyphenated or unhyphenated version of a term is used more frequently by other researchers.

Compound modifiers before a noun

A compound modifier is a combination of two or more words that work together to describe a noun. In many cases, such compounds are hyphenated when found before the noun they describe, but no hyphen is necessary when the compound is found in the predicate. For example:

  • “high-quality samples” can be written as “the samples were high quality”
  • “decision-making process” can be written as “the process of decision making”
  • “drug-induced effect” can be written as “the effect was drug induced”
  • “the physician-patient relationship” can be written as “the relationship between the physician and patient”

When the compound modifier involves an adverb ending in ‘-ly’, no hyphen is necessary. In this case, the reader is able to immediately assign the role of the adverb as part of the compound. For example:

  • “randomly assigned participants” is correct; not “randomly-assigned participants”
  • “highly contagious disease” is correct; not “highly-contagious disease”

Compounds with common ending elements

If two compound modifiers have a common second word, the ending element of the first compound can be omitted, but the hyphen should remain. The omission of the second part of a closed compound (i.e., a combination of elements that does not require a hyphen) follows the same pattern. Here are a few examples:

  • long- and short-term memory
  • pre- and postoperative examination
  • low- or high-level radiation

However, if two compound modifiers have a common first word, that word should not be omitted from the first compound. For example:

  • left-handed and left-brained participants is correct; not “left-handed and -brained participants”

We hope that this post has illustrated the use of hyphens in compound modifiers. If you have any questions, you can always email us. Best of luck!

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