5 Cases of Extraneous Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

Hyphens are used primarily to organize two or more words into phrases to aid in reading comprehension. Although errors in the use of hyphens are usually errors of omission, erroneous overuse is also common. Beware of superfluous use of hyphens in sentences such as the ones shown below.

1. The answer is to find a silver-bullet that will wean us from fossil fuels.

Hyphenated compound nouns used to be common, but most have become closed compounds. Some exceptions persist or have been coined relatively recently (dry-cleaning, go-getter, light-year, well-being), but “silver bullet,” meaning “a simple solution to a complicated problem,” is not one of them: “The answer is to find a silver bullet that will wean us from fossil fuels.”

2. She found herself routinely all-but-ignoring such comments.

Here, all and but modify the verb ignoring, and the phrase needs no hyphenation: “She found herself routinely all but ignoring such comments.”

3. The company reported a $10-million deficit.

Hyphens are not necessary in a phrasal adjective consisting of a numeral and a term for an order of magnitude such as million: “The company reported a $10 million deficit.” (However, when a number is spelled out and combined with million or a similar term, do hyphenate the phrasal adjective: “The company reported a ten-million-dollar deficit.”)

4. Hard work must be balanced with a feeling of fun, fellowship, and esprit-de-corps.

Native and adopted noun phrases (with rare exceptions such as pick-me-up and tête-à-tête) do not require hyphens: “Hard work must be balanced with a feeling of fun, fellowship, and esprit de corps.”

5. Roughly two-dozen students stood up at the meeting of the school board to protest the decision.

Do not link a spelled-out number with dozen to describe a multiple of twelve: “Roughly two dozen students stood up at the meeting of the school board to protest the decision.” (However, when using a spelled-out number with score to mean “a multiple of twenty,” treat the term as a closed compound, as with fourscore.)

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