5 Cases of Too Few or Too Many Hyphens

By Mark Nichol

When it comes to hyphenation, prose often suffers from the Goldilocks effect: either too much or too little, but seldom just right. Here are some erroneously constructed elements along with repaired revisions that let them eat, sit, or sleep with contentment.

1. “Scientists have found that a second, as-yet smaller wave of mussel extinctions followed in the late twentieth century.”
The key point is not a smaller wave that is as yet — that makes no sense. The reference is to a wave that is as yet, or up to now, smaller; it’s an as-yet-smaller wave: “Scientists have found that a second, as-yet-smaller wave of mussel extinctions followed in the late twentieth century.”

2. “They criticized the arbitrary measures taken so far on the air-travel security front.”
The front in question is not a security front pertaining to air travel; it is a front pertaining to air-travel security. For that reason, security should be linked to “air travel” to modify front as one unit: “They criticized the arbitrary measures taken so far on the air-travel-security front.” (The progression is “air travel” to “air-travel security” to “ air-travel-security front.”)

In order to avoid an adjective stack, a writer could, with slightly more formality, conversely relax the sentence to read, “They criticized the arbitrary measures taken so far in the area of air-travel security” (or “. . . in the area of security during air travel”).

3. “We offer an industry leading cloud based property management solution.”
This sentence seems to cry out for a handout of hyphens to link pairs of words (“industry-leading,” “cloud-based,” “property-management”). But that solution ignores the fact that with or without the requisite hyphens to link words to form hyphenated compounds, this sentence is an adjective-stacking train wreck. Let’s turn this loco locomotive around: “We offer a cloud-based solution for property management that leads the industry.” (It’s still empty-headed branding gobbledygook, but it’s relaxed empty-headed branding gobbledygook.)

4. “That’s enough to power about 90 percent of a 1,500-square foot home.”
This sentence is not about the energy needs of a foot home that consists of 1,500 squares; it’s about the energy needs of a home that encompasses 1,500 square feet. Those three words pertaining to horizontal area should all be hyphenated to form a three-car train modifying home: “That’s enough to power about 90 percent of a 1,500-square-foot home.”

5. “They are turning a blind eye to what their low and middle ranking members do on the streets.”
This writer evidently forgot what he or she had ever learned about suspensive hyphenation and simply omitted any hyphens. One more time: “low and middle rank members” is slight shorthand for “low-ranking members” and “middle-ranking members.”

To signal that ranking applies to low as well as middle, low retains a hyphen in spite of the omission of the first iteration of ranking: “They are turning a blind eye to what their low- and middle-ranking members do on the streets.” (Because “low-[ranking members]” and “middle-ranking members” are separate items, “low-and-middle-ranking members” is wrong.)

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6 Responses to “5 Cases of Too Few or Too Many Hyphens”

  • Ankush

    Copy wise, “We offer a cloud-based solution for property management that leads the industry” is far weaker than “We offer an industry-leading cloud-based property management solution.”

    It if were up to me, I would rewrite it as “We offer an industry-leading property management solution based on the cloud.” Might be nothing more than a matter of taste, though.

  • Adam Blumer

    Terrific article! Thank you.

  • Bill Tillman

    I have been a follower since 5/22/2010 of “Daily Writing Tips”. I have saved 570 posts and have gotten a great deal out off Daily Tips. A heart felt thank-you for consistent effort.

    Blessings, Bill

  • Natasha McNeely

    Great post! This is incredibly useful for writers, whether they’re looking into writing styles and proper grammatical rules or if they just need to refresh their memory.
    You’re right. When it comes to hyphens, the balance is very delicate and difficult to pull off. In that sense, getting it just right is an art.

  • Alice Kemp

    I especially love your #3’s last sentence, the one in parentheses about “empty-headed branding gobbledygook.” I’ve noticed how our present ease of communications now lends itself to stringing together impressive-sounding words to result in impressive-sounding, but really meaningless, phrases. (Did I get my hyphens right?) I wonder if the people stringing those together actually have a point to make?

  • Jitendra Desai

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