3 Cases of Complicated Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

When and where to use a single hyphen is perplexing enough for many writers, but when two or more are required, or one of the terms to be connected with a hyphen consists of more than one word, confusion is rampant. Here are several sentences that illustrate various problems with hyphenation of complex elements.

1. The Medal of Honor winning Navy SEAL described the rescue.

Here, the noun to be modified is the noun phrase “Navy SEAL,” and the adjectival phrase is “Medal of Honor winning.” There should be a hyphen there somewhere, you think, but where? And because “Medal of Honor” consists of more than one word, shouldn’t multiple hyphens be deployed?

In this case, because that phrase represents a single concept, only one punctuation mark is required to attach it to the adjective winning, but it’s not a hyphen. Here, use an en dash, a superhyphen of sorts: “The Medal of Honor–winning Navy SEAL described the rescue.” The distinction is obscure, but that’s the right way to do it. Alternatively, relax the syntax of the sentence so that neither a hyphen nor a “superhyphen” is required: “The Navy SEAL, who won a Medal of Honor, described the rescue.”

2. What made him leave his comfortable, high-paying position as head of an Asia Pacific-wide sales team?

In this sentence, “high-paying” is correctly hyphenated to modify position, but is “Asia Pacific-wide” the correct style for the phrasal adjective modifying “sales team”? In the previous example, I stated that an en dash replaces a hyphen when one of the terms to be connected consists of more than one word.

But there’s a complication here. “Asia-Pacific” is the label for a region of the world (though its parameters are imprecise). Because the hyphen comes along with the phrase, in this instance, the reference should be hyphenated as shown here: “What made him leave his comfortable, high-paying position as head of an Asia-Pacific-wide sales team?”

3. With a quarter billion dollar industry possible, there is a real possibility of supporting the community in a new manner.

The phrase “quarter billion dollar industry” includes a phrasal adjective followed by a noun, so at least one hyphen is required. But the three words in the complex phrasal adjective “quarter billion dollar” should be connected: “With a quarter-billion-dollar industry possible, there is a real possibility of supporting the community in a new manner.”

But what if the value is represented with a dollar sign and a numeral? The phrasal adjective “$250 million” is considered a single element, just like “Medal of Honor” in “Medal of Honor winner.” “Medal of Honor” requires no hyphenation, and neither does “$250 million”: “With a $250 million industry possible, there is a real possibility of supporting the community in a new manner.”

On a related note, multi-million has a superfluous hyphen; it should be multimillion (which is never used in isolation—it’s always part of a phrasal adjective), so avoid constructions such as “multi-million dollar damages,” which erroneously refers to dollar damages of a multi-million nature, or “multi-million-dollar damages,” which correctly inserts a hyphen before dollar but retains the extraneous previous one. The correct treatment is “multimillion-dollar damages,” which correctly describes damages costing multiple millions of dollars to remedy.

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6 Responses to “3 Cases of Complicated Hyphenation”

  • Curtis Manges

    Can we consign the en dash to history? There is no separate key for it on my keyboard, and the one time I tried to generate one, I couldn’t see a difference between it and a hyphen. Written by hand, the difference would be even less obvious.

  • Roberta B.

    Let me make a suggestion so that I’ll continue to read this blog (which I do nearly every day!)…………..please don’t start my Monday morning with “complicated.”

  • venqax

    I second the notion of uprooting en dashes, as well as em dashes, and hyphens. Keyboards don’t really allow them and if their differences are really ofany concern it’s to printers, not normal writers.

  • Phil Radler

    It grieves me to disagree with the venerable venqax, but the en dash and em dash are valuable tools—the first for gently warning the reader of a compound expression (e.g., pre–Civil War; a mere hyphen would suggest that “pre-Civil” was the complete phrase at hand), and the latter for signaling a break in the stream of thought (as used above, for example). The Chicago Manual of Style captures the essential truth about such subtleties: “While common usage can excuse many slipshod expressions, the standards of good usage make demands on writers and editors.” I accept those demands as part of my work as a technical writer and editor. And it’s not hard to use them; the refinements are readily triggered by Alt-0150 (en dash) and Alt-0151 (em dash) on the numeric keypad; that’s not a big price to pay when one wishes to help the long-suffering reader absorb complex material.

  • Agua Caliente

    There are more than ninety-nine keys on this keyboard, including an en dash. (That dash between ninety and nine is an en, isn’t it?)

  • Anne-Marie

    Endash? Is that an Olympic event?

    I can’t tell the difference, distinct though it may be, between the endash and the little ol’ hyphen. (And even funnier is that the Grammarly plug-in I use has flagged “endash” as a confused word for “endash”. )

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