The Most Confusing Words On A Resume

I’m going to delve into a little bit of grammar here, but don’t be afraid; I won’t go too far. We’re not going to diagram sentences or discuss split infinitives or any such nonsense. All we’re going to do is talk about the most confusing words on a resume...

Compound Modifiers

A compound modifier is simply a combination of words that you place hyphens between and use as a modifier to describe something. The reason we’re discussing compound modifiers is because they happen to be some of the biggest problems on resumes, and I believe they are used more on resumes than anywhere else in writing. I say it’s a problem because of the tremendous number of usage mistakes. If you review a lot of resumes, it quickly becomes apparent that many people don’t understand how to use them. Some people throw a hyphen in between certain words no matter where they fall in the sentence, and others universally ignore hyphens. The name gives a clue as to when and how to use them properly. A compound modifier is a string of two or more words that modify a noun. They usually consist of adjectives, but can also contain adverbs and nouns. Examples of compound modifiers are hands-on manager or high-volume manufacturing.

It’s Not All Bad News

If you’re confused by all of this grammar talk, don’t worry; there is an upside. Most HR departments don’t seem to mind mistakes made with compound modifiers. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know the rules of when to use them and when not to. That’s understandable. The rules seem to change depending on who you ask and where you work. There are a few general rules though, and they’re easy to learn. If you follow even the primary one you should be okay.

Basic Rules

Hyphenate a compound modifier when it comes before a noun, and don’t hyphenate it when it comes after a noun. Here are common examples found on resumes:
  • Hands-on
  • High-volume
  • High-precision
  • World-class
  • Close-tolerance
  • Long-term
  • Leading-edge
  • Self-motivated (but not highly motivated—see exceptions)


  • The couple was in a long-term relationship. (Long-term is hyphenated because it comes before the noun. Long-term functions as a compound adjective describing the word relationship.)
  • He was a hands-on manager.
  • The product was produced in high volume. (No hyphen because high volume comes after the noun.)
  • We need experience with high-volume, close-tolerance manufacturing, and we prefer someone who is self motivated. (Note that high-volume and close-tolerance are hyphenated, and self motivated is not.)
Sometimes the missing hyphen changes the meaning of what you’re trying to say. Consider the following sentence, with and without the hyphen.
  • My cousin is a high school teacher.
  • My cousin is a high-school teacher.
In the first case he’s a school teacher who’s “high.” In the second case he teaches classes to students in high school.


As always, especially with the English language, there are exceptions to the rules. I’m only going to list the ones that come up on resumes. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the others, consult a good style guide or one of the many wonderful sites on the Internet.
  • Don’t hyphenate if you use the word very, or if you use an adverb ending in ly.
  • Don’t hyphenate if one of the words is a single letter.
  • So you would write, highly motivated manager, or very intense negotiations, with no hyphens.
  • And you would write, class A license with no hyphens.

Bottom Line

Resumes are critical tools for securing an interview. Making a mistake with a compound modifier isn’t the worst you can do, by far, but doing it right gives you another chance to shine and stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t take long for you to learn how to do them right, or to find someone who does. The decision is up to you. You can go with the crowd and make mistakes and hope it doesn’t matter. Or, you can get it done right, and show them you’re serious about this opportunity. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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