5 Cases of a Missing Hyphen

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, omission of a hyphen hinders comprehension; discussion and a revision follows each example.

1. Two and a half months elapse between when the president elect is declared the winner of the election and when he or she takes office.

The noun phrase “president-elect,” based on French syntax (in which adjectives follow nouns), is hyphenated, which helps the reader identify elect as an adjective rather than a verb: “Two and a half months elapse between when the president-elect is declared the winner of the election and when he or she takes office.” (Phrases referring to mixed fractions, such as “two and a half,” are often erroneously hyphenated; hyphens are correct only when such a phrase, accompanied by a word referring to a unit of time or distance, collectively modify a noun, such as in “two-and-a-half-month period.”)

2. I’m just looking for some good tasting coffee.

As written, this sentence refers to a type of beverage known as tasting coffee and describes it as good. However, to express a sentiment about coffee that tastes good, hyphenate the phrasal adjective: “I’m just looking for some good-tasting coffee.”

3. Such documentation requires a decision-tree type approach, in which someone must decide each path to achieve an appropriate control structure.

The type of omission illustrated in the previous example can also occur in a phrasal adjective that consists of more than two words. The sentence refers not to a type approach of a decision-tree nature but to an approach of a decision-tree-type nature: “Such documentation requires a decision-tree-type approach in which someone must decide each path to achieve an appropriate control structure.”

4. It might be a destination you stumbled across on a must-see list on a travel blog or heard was a can’t miss landmark.

The writer of this sentence inexplicably correctly hyphenated the phrase “must see,” which modifies list, but overlooked the necessity of hyphenating the words “can’t miss,” which serve the same function in describing a kind of landmark: “It might be a destination you stumbled across on a must-see list on a travel blog or heard was a can’t-miss landmark.” (These phrases should be hyphenated when employed as nouns as well (as in “The Parthenon is a must-see for visitors to Greece”).

5. The study distinguishes between high and low-risk activities.

This sentence refers not to high activities and low-risk activities but to high-risk and low-risk activities, but it does so elliptically, observing the convention that when a two phrasal adjectives in sequence share the same second word, the first can be omitted—but the hyphen must be retained so that the reader knows to supply the implied word: “The study distinguishes between high- and low-risk activities.”

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3 Responses to “5 Cases of a Missing Hyphen”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I distinctly dislike all such phrases as “must-buy, must-have, must-see, & can’t-miss” because they are all advertising jargon and money-grubbing lingo, too. I will make up my own mind what I “must do” or “must have”, and I refuse to let anyone try to brainwash me into anything.
    I think that all such lingo belongs in the garbage can and that you should not even consider writing about it.
    Is that your must-buy and must-have garbage can for bad phrases?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I do not see anything wrong with hyphenating phrases like “two-and-a- half” and “one-and-one-half” EVERY time that you use one. It improves the mathematical clarity of the expression.
    The same goes for “three-and-three-sixteenths”.
    Nowadays, so many people have distinct troubles in dealing with fractions, anyway. They would rather use calculators and deal with forms like 2.5 or 3.1875 .
    Good expressions like “one-fourth of” and “one-quarter of” have been replaces by mysterious ones like “four times less” because people (especially journalists) do not want to deal with fractions like 1/4.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Also, good expressions like “one-out-three people is” has been replaced by the nonsensical “one-out-three people are”.
    I agree that “two-out-of-five people are”.
    The root of the first expression is “one”, but the root of the second expression is “two”.
    On the other hand, “one-third-of” is a mathematical expression, but for many people today, that fractional expression is too hard to deal with.

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