5 January, 2011
When using hyphens it's important to be consistent. There are good reasons to use them, and sometimes there are good reasons for skipping them. However, using hyphens in one location but forgetting to use them elsewhere in the same document is a bad mistake.
We used PerfectIt, Intelligent Editing's add-in for MS Word that finds inconsistencies, to check 600 randomly selected documents. PerfectIt tests three different kinds of hyphenation inconsistencies:
For demonstration purposes, we checked only the first type of inconsistency. Each document was 1500 words or more and was downloaded from the internet.
Forgetting to use hyphens makes an author look sloppy and reflects badly on the text. So we were amazed to find that more than half of all documents contain inconsistent hyphenation. A staggering 60% of documents over 1500 words suffer from the error.
The worst offender was 'long term' and 'long-term', which came up in 10% of all documents. However, others came up frequently as well. Here's the full Top 10.
|RANK||WORD||FREQUENCY (% OF DOCUMENTS)|
|1||long-term / long term||10.0%|
|2||follow-up / follow up||4.8%|
|3||short-term / short term||4.4%|
|4||decision-making / decision making||4.3%|
|5||set-up / set up||3.3%|
|6||longer-term / longer term||2.8%|
|7||high-level / high level||2.3%|
|8||full-time / full time||2.1%|
|9||land-use / land use||2.1%|
|10||large-scale / large scale||2.1%|
A phrase that appears with and without a hyphen is not necessarily wrong. Hyphens are important because they affect meaning. As one Twitter user put it, 'A large women's-clothing store is not the same as a large-women's clothing store'. Another Twitter user described, '50-odd people isn't the same as 50 odd people'. In each case, the phrase is hyphenated only when it is used as a compound modifier (i.e. the phrase modifies the noun).
This is important because a small percentage of uses in the Top 10 could be correct. For instance, if the phrase 'in the long term' appears in the same document as 'long-term plan', then it's right to have the phrase both with and without a hyphen. PerfectIt is free to try and locates every possible inconsistency in seconds. However, as you use it, it's important to consider context.
Inconsistent use of hyphens is a staggeringly frequent error. The worst document we found had more than 100 different phrases hyphenated inconsistently. However, it was far from alone. In a random selection of documents, 60% contained inconsistent hyphenation.
With such poor standards out there, your documents can easily stand out above the rest. A thorough check for inconsistent hyphenation will help get articles accepted, proposals granted and reports approved. So whether you check manually or whether you whizz through checking with PerfectIt, make sure you watch for an inconsistency that's all too frequent.