By Nick Potter

In this series we look at real-life examples of the most common mistakes in English by native Spanish lawyers.

These and lots more invaluable tips are compiled in two e-books/paperbacks, here: 50 English Tips for Spanish Professionals and More English Tips for Spanish Professionals.

setting up and set-ups

Let’s say you are writing about some changes in the law. Once already mentioned, you may wish to refer to these as “the above-mentioned changes”.

Do you always remember to put in the little line between above and mentioned? That’s a hyphen. Omitting the hyphen (“abovementioned”) is a common mistake even by native English speakers (you could say aforementioned, as it is one word, but in any case plain English advocates would recommend you refer to “the above changes” or simply “the above” or “the changes”).

Anyway, don’t worry. Forgetting hyphens is not too serious.

Now putting hyphens where they shouldn’t be, on the other hand, that’s a big no-no.

Question: Which ONE of A – H below is correct?

A Writing-off any portion of the outstanding principal balance may have a negative tax impact for the lender
B Liquidation is the second phase of the winding-up process, within which liquidators must carry out all actions required to wind-up the company
C If required, several SPVs could be set-up so that each of them hold a REO
D Setting-up the structure
E To complete the set-up of accounts, users need to agree to the terms and conditions
F Monthly advances shall be set-off with the fees corresponding to the same month of the following year
G The shares in these companies will be carved-out through a sale and purchase
H The Company has the intention not only of maintaining the current production levels but even of increasing them in the long-term

■ Before you read the answer, remember:

Hyphens are used to join words together, often to make compound nouns (an x-ray or sister-in-law) or compound adjectives (a home-made pizza or cross-border merger).

Verbs can be used to make compound nouns and adjectives e.g. If you follow up something, then what you do is a follow-up.  If Company A wholly owns Company B, then B is a wholly-owned subsidiary.

People often get confused about when to use hyphens with phrasal verbs – verbs, remember, that have different meanings with particular prepositions (come up = surgir; come out = salir).

This may be because you have often seen them hyphenated, but you’re not sure what the rule is.

Like other verbs, phrasals can be joined together by a hyphen to make compound nouns:

  • a spin-off of the business (una escisión del negocio)
  • an orderly wind-up (una disolución/liquidación ordenada)
  • a 50% write-off of its debt (una quita del 50% de su deuda)

And to make compound adjectives:

  • the spun-off business (el negocio escindido)
  • the wound-up company (empresa disuelta, liquidada)
  • the written-off debt (la deuda condonada)

However, like any other verbs, phrasal verbs are NOT hyphenated when used as verbs:

  • to set up a company (incorporar / constituir una empresa)
  • to build up business (crecer el negocio)
  • ramping up production (aumentando la producción)
  • paying off creditors (satisfaciendo a los acreedores)

We wouldn’t hyphenate “winding up” in “the date of winding up” because it is a verb, just as “writing” is a verb in “the date of writing”.

Rightly or wrongly, you will often see native speakers not bother with hyphens in compound nouns/adjectives (e.g. “a spin off” or “the wound up company”).

But you won’t (or shouldn’t) see native speakers using hyphens in verbs – this is a serious mistake you should avoid.

If it’s a verb: no hyphen.

■ So:

A and B are wrong because the author has hyphenated phrasal verbs used as verbs. In B, there is a correctly hyphenated verb-as-a-compound-adjective earlier in the same sentence (winding-up process).

A Writing off any portion of the outstanding principal balance may have a negative tax impact for the lender
B Liquidation is the second phase of the winding-up process, within which liquidators must carry out all actions required to wind up the company

C-E all contain use of the phrasal verb, set up. Only E is correct because here the verb and proposition are joined together as a noun, using a hyphen.  In the others, it is used as a verb so the hyphen is incorrect.

C If required, several SPVs could be set up so that each of them hold an REO
D Setting up the structure
E To complete the set-up of accounts, users need to agree to the terms and conditions [CORRECT]

In F and G, the authors have used two more phrasal verbs – to set off and to carve out (segregar). But they have used them as verbs, not as nouns or adjectives. So they should not be hyphenated.

F Monthly advances shall be set off with against the fees corresponding to for the same month of the following year
G The shares in these companies will be carved out through a sale and purchase

H is a final example of incorrect use of a hyphen. Again, this is probably because the author has often seen the words long and term hyphenated, but isn’t clear about when and why. Long and term are joined together with a hyphen to make a compound adjective describing something else e.g. long-term goals. But here term is just a noun described by the adjective long. So the hyphen was wrong.

H The Company has the intention not only of maintaining the current production levels but even of increasing them in the long term