3 Cases of Extraneous Hyphens

By Mark Nichol

Writers, even professionals, have a difficult time with hyphens, frequently perplexed about whether to use one — or, worse, blithely certain they’re inserting or omitting a hyphen correctly when doing so is wrong. Here are some sentences that should be bereft of hyphens.

1. “In the city’s first cop-killing since 1935, a detective was found shot at a residence.” There’s no reason to link the adjectival use of cop with the noun killing, unless killing is joining cop as a phrasal adjective, as in “The suspect is a cop-killing menace.” The correct usage is “In the city’s first cop killing since 1935, a detective was found shot at a residence.”

2. “A privately-built spacecraft will try a second flight in an effort to secure the prize.”
Writers frequently confuse adverbs ending in -ly, which are never connected to the verbs they modify, with adjectives, which are usually hyphenated in phrases like the one referred to in the previous item. Complicating the matter is that adjectival phrases including an adjective ending in -ly, such as grandfatherly-looking in “a grandfatherly-looking fellow,” are hyphenated before (and after) a noun.

The difference in these usages is that privately describes how the spacecraft was built; privately modifies built. In “grandfatherly-looking fellow,” however, the first two words are hyphenated to indicate that together, they modify fellow. The sentence should read, “A privately built spacecraft will try a second flight in an effort to secure the prize.”

3. “They prefer to dump the label for a more-effective brand.”
When a comparative or superlative modifier — less or least, or more or most — modifies an adjective, do not connect the terms with a hyphen: “They prefer to dump the label for a more effective brand.” (If the sentence is ambiguous without the hyphen, as in “The team had several more successful seasons,” revise the sentence according to the intended meaning: “The team had several seasons that were more successful” or “The team had several successful seasons after that.”)

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7 Responses to “3 Cases of Extraneous Hyphens”

  • thebluebird11

    (hangs head in shame) I’m probably guilty of #2, or at least I think I am, and that’s probably because I have never really gotten through my thick skull all the parts of speech and so forth. I know my teachers tried hard to drill into the cement (of my skull) and get through to me, but in general I’m hard put to say what is an adverb, an adverbial phrase, etc etc. I’ve heard the rule about words ending in -ly not getting a hyphen, but I still don’t see the difference between “privately-built” modifying the noun “spacecraft” and “grandfatherly-looking” modifying the noun “fellow.”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I’m not sure that the rule cited in example 2 is germane. After all, “built” is not a verb; it’s a past participle used as an adjective. If I’m right (and I’m fairly certain that I am), how does the rule apply? The hyphenation of “privately-built” is an adverb and an adjective linked by a hyphen and used adjectivally to modify “spacecraft.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “When a comparative or superlative modifier — less or least, or more or most — modifies an adjective, do not connect the terms with a hyphen.”
    This is very questionable, and let me give you some examples. I always use the adverb “well” hyphnenated onto an adjective, such as in these:

    a well-built house, a well-cooked meal, a well-done job, a well-fed horse, a well-grown young man, a well-kept secret, a well-led army, a well-made garment, a well-parsed sentence, a well-run business, a well-said proverb, a well-thought action, and a well-worn pair of shoes.

    So, when we get into comparatives and superlatives, why not:
    a well-kept secret, a better-kept secret, and the best-kept secret, or
    a well-kept house, a better-kept house, and the best-kept house, or
    a well-run business, a better-run business, and the best-run business, or
    a well-led army, a better-led army, and the best-led army?

    The best-lead army in France during World War II was the American Third Army under the command of General Patton, General Bradley, and General Eisenhower.

    “Best” is obviously a superlative.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The worse cases of excessive hyphenation come from British English, and some Americans and Canadians have the tendency to imitiate the British even when they are wrong.

    Many British hypens come out of the clear blue sky, such as in the book title “Lassie Come-Home”. Others come in the cases of such geographical terms as “north-west”, “north-east”, “south-east”, and “south-west”, then these all work very nicely {northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest}. What is worse is writing terms such as North West.

    Note that by an act of the Canadian Parliament in about 1912, a large part of that country has the official name the Northwest Territories. There was also the Royal Northwest Mounted Police before that became the R.C.M.P. In the United States, there was also a Northwest Territory, established by Congress in 1787, but this territory was long ago divided into pieces (decade-by-decade) and given statehood as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a small part of Minnesota. Note that the Northwest Territory was established under the Articles of Confederation, and not under the curren Constitution that came into effect in 1789.

    We also have Northwestern University and Northeastern University without the need for any hyphens.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To: Mohi Uddin
    You have a very good attitude: to learn something new every day, including about English. This is a smart thing to do.

    Note: “This post has increase my knowledge,” needs to be “This post has increased my knowledge,” with the “d”.
    However, this Web site is sometimes annoying in not registering letters that people actually type, such as when I typed “current” (above), but the system dropped the “t”. Thus, perhaps you typed “increased” after all.
    English has thousands of verbs with past participles that end in “ed”, such as “canned”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Unfortunately, Mr. Nichol does not have anything to say about the
    best-built house, best-cooked meal, best-done job, best-kept secret, best-led army, best-made pair of shoes, best-parsed sentence, best-run business, best-said proverb, or best-written article.

    This is despite the fact that all of these have a superlative adverb hyphenated onto an adjective. “Best” is clearly an adverb here because adjectives cannot modify other adjectives.

    We could also mention the worst-built house, worst-cooked meal, worst-done job, worst-kept secret, worst-led navy, worst-made pair of pants or pantyhose, worst-parsed sentence, worst-run business, worst-said proverb, or worst-written article.

    D.A.W.

  • Reverend Flash

    Dale A. Wood:
    The phrase “Lassie Come-Home” doesn’t have a hyphen that just came ‘out of the blue’. You’re simply not familiar with the story, which has its owner so impressed with Lassie’s ability to always come home that he gives him the nickname, “Lassie Come-Home”.
    Nevertheless, when it was time to turn the book into a movie, the producers were fearful that people would have been confused by that title, as you were, so they removed the hyphen, turning the phrase into a command, rather than just a name.

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