Grammar Lesson – That *%@!^ Hyphen!

Without a doubt, the most common mechanical error I see in resumes that job seekers write themselves is the hyphen error. Most people are not familiar with the hyphen since word-processors have eliminated the need for knowing where to separate a word at the end of a sentence to keep it from running into the margin.

There are other uses for the hyphen besides separating syllables to break a word. An example appears in the sentence before last – “word-processor”. Hyphens are used in some compound nouns. Some compound words are hyphenated; some are broken into two words (e.g. “decision making”), and some are one word written together (e.g. “breakthrough”).

Compound adjectives are often hyphenated when working together. Two or more words that serve together as a single modifier before a noun need a hyphen to form them into a unit. For example, see the following:

“well-known actor”
“out-of-date statistics”
“English-speaking people”

If the same compound adjectives follow the noun instead of preceding it, the hyphens are unnecessary.

“The actor is well known.”
“The statistics were out of date.”
“Those people are English speaking.”

In these sentences, the compound adjectives are serving as predicate adjectives and follow a linking verb so no hyphen is necessary.

What does all this have to do with a resume? Well, let’s look at a sentence extracted directly from a resume that was written by a job seeker.

“Highly organized and detail oriented with strong communication, writing, and presentation skills.”

After the mini grammar lesson above, you can probably identify that “detail-oriented” should be hyphenated, but what about “highly organized”? Hyphens are unnecessary in compound modifiers containing an –ly adverb, even when these fall before the noun.

Common phrases seen in resumes that should usually have a hyphen include:

“High-energy leader”
“Hands-on style”
“Detail-oriented management”


  1. kristin on May 21, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I am detail oriented. No comma because not followed by a noun?
    Our business subscribes to a detail-oriented management style. Yes comma because followed by a noun.

  2. Samantha on December 9, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but according to your grammar lesson, the detail-oriented resume writer is correct, as she is saying, “(I am) highly organized and detail oriented …” Just as the well-known actor, who is well known, would say about himself, “I am well known.” Am I wrong?

  3. Rafael on January 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    You stated correct general rules to keep in mind when working with compound adjectives, but unfortunately, you provided a sentence to which one of those rules doesn’t apply. “Those people are English speaking” is preposterous. “English-speaking people” are so because “those people speak English.” If you are going to use the compound adjective “English-speaking,” regardless of where you place it in a sentence, it would still require a hyphen. For everyone else reading this, “I am detail-oriented” also requires a hyphen. The only way you would say that without needing to hyphenate those two words would be to say something like “I am oriented toward details.”

  4. Stella on August 29, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Dear Administrator and Rafael,

    I’m afraid you are both mistaken about a certain point made in this article.

    The words “detail” and “oriented,” when paired and placed AFTER the noun they serve to modify (i.e., describe), DO NOT require a hyphen. Thus, in the example provided in the above article, the adjectival phrase “detail oriented” is fine as it is. This fact is (currently, at least) backed by several widely used style manuals.

    As Kristin and Samantha have pointed out in their comments, when the compound adjective PRECEDES the noun it is describing, then it DOES require a hyphen. Again, this is supported by many well-known style guides.

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