3 Problems with Suspensive Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

The grammatical convention known as suspensive hyphenation is employed when two or more adjacent and parallel phrasal adjectives, phrases that in tandem modify a noun that follows them, have a common element in the same position. Elision of one of the repeated words because it is clearly implicit is a common strategy, but misuse of suspensive hyphenation can complicate a sentence rather than simplify it, as the examples below demonstrate. (Each sentence is accompanied by a discussion and a solution.)

1. We help companies identify, manage, and resolve the business and technology related risks they face.

This sentence contains two phrasal adjectives, “business related” and “technology related,” but because they share the second word, that word has been elided from the first phrase because it is implicit. However, because the phrasal adjectives precede the noun, they must be hyphenated, and a hyphen should follow business to clarify that an implicit word has been omitted: “We help companies identify, manage, and resolve the business- and technology-related risks they face.”

2. Most of these markets are little-known small- and midsize cities.

Here, suspensive hyphenation has been erroneously introduced. Because small is not part of a phrasal adjective (the reference is to “small cities,” not “small-sized cities”), no hyphen should be attached to it: “Most of these markets are little-known small and midsize cities.”

3. The meeting was held to discuss risk-assessment and -management policies.

Here, suspensive hyphenation is employed to elide the first word of a two-word phrasal adjective that has the same first word as an adjacent phrasal adjective. (Notice that in this case, the second instance of the first word has been omitted; compare this with omission of the first instance of a second word in common to two or more two-word phrasal adjectives.) The construction is technically correct but awkward and distracting, so it’s better to explicitly include the second instance of risk rather than elide it: “The meeting was held to discuss risk-assessment and risk-management policies.”

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