The SHARP Agency is based on the top floor or a sensitively restored spinning mill in Huddersfield. It’s a traditional nineteenth century build from the heart of the northern Industrial Revolution; though some would say it’s a nineteenth-century classic.


Most of us (the ones who don’t wimp out and take the lift) jog up and down two flights of stairs every day. But does that make it a three storey or a three-storey building?


Misplaced hyphens can be a letdown, a let-down and occasionally a let down in our industry. But which is right? Even the dictionaries can’t agree.


Now there are a concrete, set-in-stone hyphen answer for Britain’s confused copywriters (not copy-writers), wordsmiths and grammar police.


All hail Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer, Professor of Modern English Linguistics at LMU. Over in Munich, she wondered why no one across the Channel could agree on when, where and if to use their own hyphens in their native language.


After ruthlessly numberwanging over 10,000 popular English compounds – to see whether the structure, length or stress pattern were in any way correlated with their spelling – the professor developed a spelling algorithm that suggests the most probable spelling. And (hurrah!) she’s turned her findings into four simple(ish) rules.


“In English, there are compound words belonging to all parts of speech. In most cases, one particular spelling intuitively suggests itself, but even native speakers sometimes find it difficult to decide between the possible alternatives. My aim was to identify the underlying reasons for the variation.”

Professor Sanchez-Stockhammer


 The 4 simple(ish) rules


1 If a word is a verb (like to blow-dry), or an adjective (like world-famous), it needs a hyphen. 


2 For nouns with two syllables (like break-up and set-to) the rule is easy – use a hyphen only when the second word has two letters.


3 If the second part of the word has more than two letters, it should be spelt as a single word, like coastline or bedroom.


4 If the noun has three or more syllables, it is two separate words, much you’re your bathing suit and washing machine.


And that, dear friends, is why a hotdog is never hyphenated and there’s no need to get into hot-headed discussions about whether it should be. Probably.


That said, the professor’s algorithm isn’t foolproof. By using the above rules, one will arrive at the most frequent spelling “in about 75% of all cases”.


Clear as mud?



Senior Copywriter