Help me settle a discussion on this topic. Everywhere I look, within my company's internal documents as well as documents from other companies, a "personal use" program is not hyphenated. A colleague of mine believes it should be hyphenated, and is under that impression thanks to the AP Style Guide's rule on compound modifiers used as an adjective:

"When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly: a first-quarter touchdown, a bluish-green dress, a full-time job, a well-known man, a better-qualified woman, a know-it-all attitude, a very good time, an easily remembered rule."

This seems like a "substitute teacher" issue to me. "Personal" is an adjective and "use" is a noun. That would make this a compound noun and not require a hyphen, right? Or sort of right?

Can someone clear this up for me?

  • 1
    AP isn't the only reference for the English language, and it's certainly not official - it's just a style guide for a news organisation. You need to look at other references too before you assume something is generally true.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 13, 2022 at 14:41
  • @Stuart F Valuable article. Commented Jun 8, 2023 at 11:06

1 Answer 1


Would anybody be likely to misinterpret your meaning if you didn't hyphenate it?

Do you think you might have use programs, some of which are personal and some of which are public?

Hyphenation is only used to prevent ambiguity. It's probably useful to hyphenate, but there's no grammatical requirement to do so. It's a question of style, not grammar.

Personally, I would write personal-use program (to distinguish it from a personal use-program). I figure it's better to to explicitly understood at the risk of sounding slightly strange than it is to be misunderstood. But, despite that, I doubt anybody would confuse your intended meaning in this case if you didn't use hyphenation at all.

It comes down to personal preference and what style guide, if any, you choose to follow.

Consistency is key. If it's not hyphenated in any of your company's documentation, then don't hyphenate it in any future documentation for the company. (Unless you have a convincing argument to change the documentation.) And whether your company hyphenates it or not, that shouldn't determine what you do outside of company documentation.

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    Nitpicking on: "Hyphenation is only used to prevent ambiguity." This is wrong in real life — lots of people hyphenate unambiguous phrases. People write full-time job even though there is no such thing as a "time job" which might be empty or full. Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 11:14
  • @PeterShor Unless you're writing a science fiction novel about time travel. In that case, you certainly could have time jobs. Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 16:42

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