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What a Difference a Hyphen Makes!

Before I arrived at Pasco Airport, I receive an email from National Car Rental, the company I always use for my car rentals.

The message said, “No counter bypass: Proceed to the rental counter to pick up your vehicle keys.”

Because I so often read messages that do not include required hyphens, I supplied a hyphen in my mind. My quick-skim version of the sentence read “No-counter bypass.” When I arrived in Pasco, Washington, I tried to bypass the counter and go straight to the lot for my car.

Oops–my mistake. National really did mean “No counter bypass.” I could not bypass the counter. I had to stop at the counter to rent a car.

What a difference a hyphen makes! Next time I will assume that National’s punctuation is correct, read the entire sentence, and do as I am told.

If you want to master punctuation, try Punctuation for Professionals.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “What a Difference a Hyphen Makes!”

  • I look forward to reading your emails. I find them entertaining, as well as informative. It is very possible you will find errors in my comment, so please be gentle with me. English is my second language and I just wanted to encourage you to keep writing your posts. You have an audience and I am your biggest fan.

  • I have a question: Would it be better if the message said, “No counter bypassING: Proceed to the rental counter to pick up your vehicle keys.”?

  • It would have a better flow if they had simply reversed the order of the two sentences. Your impulse to add a hyphen made me smile. What a great story you’ve shared!

  • Agree with Martha – reversing the order would make better sense. But it’s still a somewhat harsh message. It would not have hurt to drop a “please” in there: Please proceed to the rental counter to pick up your vehicle keys; no counter bypass.”

  • I think you hit on one of the hazards of your profession (obsession?), Lynn. One comes to expect grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors and can be somewhat confused by an unexpected message like the one you received.

    I like that the agency was trying to alert you to the fact that Pasco, as charming as it is, does not have all the amenities you are accustomed to. That level of service is how they earn your loyalty, I imagine.

    I wonder why they didn’t just add the words “Pasco has” at the beginning of the message. The message would still be short enough to easily read on your phone and it reads more like a complete sentence.

  • Hi, Laura. “Please” does make the message less directive. Sometimes I leave the word out, though, to focus on the action required.

    Because I did not include the entire email from National, you did not see the polite language they included. The subject was “Welcome to Pasco Airport. Your rental car is waiting.” The first sentence was “We are expecting you today at Pasco Airport.”

    I never read to the end of the message, but I see now that the last paragraph included, “We appreciate your business and look forward to seeing you.”

    Overall, it was a friendly, helpful message.

    Thanks for your comment!


  • Hi, Randy. How right you are! Punctuation and other niceties of business writing are my passion–AND my obsession.

    I want to emphasize that there was really nothing wrong with National’s message. They did their best to communicate helpfully. In the end, I need to accept the blame. I simply read the message wrong.

    Your helpful comment (and those of others) serves to illustrate how National might have been more successful with a reader moving too quickly to read each word.

    Thanks for stopping by for a chat.


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