5 Examples of Extraneous Hyphens

By Mark Nichol

Hyphens are helpful little things that aid in reader comprehension. Although confusion is not at great risk in phrases like “sharp-dressed man” (though the omission of the hyphen suggests that the passage literally refers to a dressed man who is sharp) others, such as “small-business owner,” can at the very least conjure distracting imagery if they omit the hyphen.

And such hyphenated word strings as “song-and-dance man” and “customer-relationship-management software” help keep the reader focused, though judiciously relaxing a phrase is often a welcome solution: The former phrase isn’t exhausting to read, but how about “software for customer-relationship management” in lieu of the latter?

On the other hand, sins of commission regarding hyphenation are as endemic as those of omission. Here are examples of superfluous usage:

1. “Mergers and acquisitions ground to a near-halt in 2001.”

“Near-halt” and its cousins “near-disaster” and “near-miss” are results of a misunderstanding: When near modifies another adjective, it should be hyphenated to its teammate (“near-fatal accident”), but a hyphen serves no use in linking near in isolation directly to a noun.

2. “The recently-launched firm survived by limiting itself to modestly-scaled projects.”

Adverbs ending in -ly never are never hyphenated, though suffix-free adverbs are: “longer-lasting freshness.”

3. “The mostly flat paved trail is an inline-skater’s dream.”

There was a time when compound nouns that are now open or closed, such as “income tax” or “taskmaster,” were likely to be hyphenated. That usage, however, is now considered archaic (with some puzzling exceptions such as mind-set and life-form). Safely assume that just about any such linkage you see is incorrect — though, to be safe, I offer the inverse of a piece of all-purpose advice: Distrust, but verify.

4. “She realized that the police department was less-than-dedicated to assisting her.”

Step back and ponder what benefit of comprehension accrues from creating the wagon train of “less-than-dedicated,” then excise the offending hyphens.

5. “The starting center is seven-feet tall.”

The necessity of hyphenating physical dimensions in phrasal adjectives (“the seven-foot-tall center”) confuses many writers into believing that any phrasing having to do with size or weight or distance must be linked. “Seven-foot-tall center” is hyphenated so as not to suggest that the tall center has seven feet, but no such ambiguity attends “seven feet tall.”

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7 Responses to “5 Examples of Extraneous Hyphens”

  • Rebecca

    As always, very useful information. I often wonder if some words do or don’t require a hyphen. I’ll use this post as a reference.

  • Symon

    Excellent tips on how to use hyphens.
    I wonder if you might also sometime comment on the variations of style that attend the use of what I think are called em dashes (long hyphens?) I have noticed that in some books (possible mainly novels) they are used with no spaces either side. But in other writing they are used with spaces.
    (I’m not sure if this is interesting enough an enquiry but it has exercised my mind in the past…)
    Thanks again for the excellent posts.

  • Mark Nichol

    Symon:

    5 Examples of Extraneous Hyphens
    by Mark Nichol

    Hyphens are helpful little things that aid in reader comprehension. Although confusion is not at great risk in phrases like “sharp-dressed man” (though the omission of the hyphen suggests that the passage literally refers to a dressed man who is sharp) others, such as “small-business owner,” can at the very least conjure distracting imagery if they omit the hyphen.

    And such hyphenated word strings as “song-and-dance man” and “customer-relationship-management software” help keep the reader focused, though judiciously relaxing a phrase is often a welcome solution: The former phrase isn’t exhausting to read, but how about “software for customer-relationship management” in lieu of the latter?

    On the other hand, sins of commission regarding hyphenation are as endemic as those of omission. Here are examples of superfluous usage:
    1. “Mergers and acquisitions ground to a near-halt in 2001.”

    “Near-halt” and its cousins “near-disaster” and “near-miss” are results of a misunderstanding: When near modifies another adjective, it should be hyphenated to its teammate (“near-fatal accident”), but a hyphen serves no use in linking near in isolation directly to a noun.
    2. “The recently-launched firm survived by limiting itself to modestly-scaled projects.”

    Adverbs ending in -ly never are never hyphenated, though suffix-free adverbs are: “longer-lasting freshness.”
    3. “The mostly flat paved trail is an inline-skater’s dream.”

    There was a time when compound nouns that are now open or closed, such as “income tax” or “taskmaster,” were likely to be hyphenated. That usage, however, is now considered archaic (with some puzzling exceptions such as mind-set and life-form). Safely assume that just about any such linkage you see is incorrect — though, to be safe, I offer the inverse of a piece of all-purpose advice: Distrust, but verify.
    4. “She realized that the police department was less-than-dedicated to assisting her.”

    Step back and ponder what benefit of comprehension accrues from creating the wagon train of “less-than-dedicated,” then excise the offending hyphens.
    5. “The starting center is seven-feet tall.”

    The necessity of hyphenating physical dimensions in phrasal adjectives (“the seven-foot-tall center”) confuses many writers into believing that any phrasing having to do with size or weight or distance must be linked. “Seven-foot-tall center” is hyphenated so as not to suggest that the tall center has seven feet, but no such ambiguity attends “seven feet tall.”
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    2 Responses to “5 Examples of Extraneous Hyphens”

    1. Rebecca on January 17, 2011 11:11 am

    As always, very useful information. I often wonder if some words do or don’t require a hyphen. I’ll use this post as a reference.
    2. Symon on January 17, 2011 7:10 pm

    Excellent tips on how to use hyphens.
    I wonder if you might also sometime comment on the variations of style that attend the use of what I think are called em dashes (long hyphens?) I have noticed that in some books (possible mainly novels) they are used with no spaces either side. But in other writing they are used with spaces.
    (I’m not sure if this is interesting enough an enquiry but it has exercised my mind in the past…)
    Thanks again for the excellent posts.

    Thanks for your note. I discuss the vagaries of spacing of em dashes in my comment in response to a query about my post at http://www.dailywritingtips.com/parenthetical-phrases.

  • Roy Hadef

    Ya, not sure I can relate to what was said above. I guess everyone has their own opinion I suppose.

  • Ken Kukec

    Is that a typo in example 2 above — or did you mean to say that adjectives ending in -ly “never are never hyphenated”? If so, in which case it seems to have been intended as a way of emphasizing the affirmative through the negation of the negative, would that constitute a “litotes” or a “meiosis,” or is there a distinction between the two?

  • Mark Nichol

    “Is that a typo in example 2 above — or did you mean to say that adjectives ending in -ly ‘never are never hyphenated’? If so, in which case it seems to have been intended as a way of emphasizing the affirmative through the negation of the negative, would that constitute a ‘litotes’ or a ‘meiosis,’ or is there a distinction between the two?”

    Ken:

    It’s a typo, not a rhetorical device. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Precise Edit

    Mark: Great reminders.

    The two hyphen errors I see most often are
    1. hyphenating compound modifiers that follow the word they modify (ex: The actress was washed-out), and
    2. hyphenating compound modifiers in which the first modifier is an -ly adverb (ex: The nearly-completed project was abandoned).

    (From now on, I’m going to call all my typos “rhetorical devices.”)

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