Editors and grammar geeks are strange people. The internet is full of these strange people shaking their metaphorical fists over punctuation points, word usage or grammatical constructions.

Certain usages come down to a matter of house style—like whether you spell ‘focused’ with 1 s or 2 (it should be 1!) Other times, it really is a matter of correct or incorrect—or at least ‘accepted usage in standard grammar’. This is one of those times.

So, when should you hyphenate ‘up to date’?

There are 2 ways this can be used: adjectively or adverbially.

Wait, don’t go! I’ll stop speaking Geek! (Well, I’ll try…)

There are 2 ways ‘up to date’ can be used:

  • before the noun (bolded)—an up-to-date mailing list (adjectival usage)
  • after the noun—the mailing list is up to date. (adverbial usage)

That’s it. You only need to hyphenate if you’re putting it in front of the noun.

But what if there’s no noun? Like in:

Keep up to date with the latest news.

Here ‘keep’ is a verb, and a verb has to apply to something… That something is implied: it’s you. You would be doing the keeping. (And here, ‘up to date’ is describing the ‘keeping’—an adverbial usage.)

No hyphens.

This follows with the general point of punctuation: to prevent confusion.

The hyphens in ‘up-to-date’ tell us that it’s a little package of description, and it’s going to describe the next noun that comes along. We do this all the time when we get creative with adjectives.

This chilli sauce has a real punch-you-in-the-face, tongue-melting kick.

Look, I’m not a fan of that sentence either, but it’s easy enough to read. Compare it without the hyphens.

This chilli sauce has a real punch you in the face, tongue melting kick.

Even though you’ve just seen it with the hyphens, I bet your brain still did a little double-take.

Ahhhhh… So if you’re still looking at your screen and blinking, possibly turning your head sideways to see if that helps, there is an easier way to remember:

If ‘up to date’ follows:

  • stay
  • keep
  • is
  • are…

Don’t hyphenate it!

* While writing this, I accidentally typed ‘up-yo-date’, which both disturbs and amuses me.