5 Examples of the Need for Multiple Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

Complex and compound phrasal adjectives, in which more than two words unite to modify a noun that follows the phrase, pose a challenge for many writers. How many hyphens are required, and where do they go? These examples demonstrate the proper application of hyphens in such cases.

1. “He broke the 21-year old world record at the tournament.”
Hyphenation errors frequently occur in references to age or duration. In this case, the reference seems to be to an old record of a 21-year nature, but it can mean only that a record that has stood for 21 years has been broken. The record is 21 years old, so those three terms should be hyphenated together: “He broke the 21-year-old world record at the tournament.” (Or, if the number is spelled out, “He broke the twenty-one-year-old world record at the tournament.”)

2. “The project exemplifies his wheeling and dealing ways.”
The ways described involve wheeling and dealing. Because the two verbs are often used in tandem as an idiom referring to underhanded negotiations, they and the intervening conjunction should all be linked: “The project exemplifies his wheeling-and-dealing ways.”

3. “They’re taking a wait and see approach.”
As with “wheeling and dealing,” “wait and see” is an idiom; it means that observers will refrain from interference or deliberation until a catalyzing event occurs. All the words in the phrase should be hyphenated together: “They’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

4. “He sustained non-life threatening injuries in the accident.”
As styled, the central phrase seems to refer to threatening injuries not associated with life. But the reference applies to injuries that are not threatening to life. Although non would normally be attached directly to a root word (for example, in nonprofit), in this case, because it is associated with the entire phrase “life-threatening injuries,” it is correctly attached to life with a hyphen. But life-threatening is a stock phrasal adjective, and a hyphen should connect those two terms here as well: “He sustained non-life-threatening injuries in the accident.”

5. “The soldiers were injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.”
This sentence implies that the soldiers were injured in a grenade attack that was rocket propelled — meaning that enemy troops themselves were propelled by rockets as they threw grenades. But the weapons were rocket-propelled grenades. Because this phrase modifies attack, grenade is attached to rocket-propelled: “The soldiers were injured in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack.”

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10 Responses to “5 Examples of the Need for Multiple Hyphenation”

  • thebluebird11

    I just came across this dilemma last night in my work. A trauma patient who was too out of it to give a medical history and had no ID on her, was brought to the hospital, and nobody knew exactly how old she was, so the doctor was dictating a report, starting with (verbatim/uncorrected/unpunctuated) “This is an approximately 40 50 year old woman…” It’s my job as a transcriptionist to make the doctor look good; I don’t just type verbatim. So I put “This is an approximately 40- to 50-year-old woman…” I believe that is correct (Mark, this is where you come in). I was trying to avoid that “to” in there (clutter, clutter), but I don’t think I had a choice. Normally, if something is a range or estimate, I just use a hyphen; e.g., “There were 40-50 people at the party,” or, “He has been sick for 4-5 days.” But stringing along a whole bunch of hyphens (in my main example), “This is a 40-50-year-old woman…” looks awful and confusing, even though that is actually what the doctor said, and in any other context, I would have put “40-50,” as a range or estimate.
    Perhaps as a cousin of the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” we need a “Hyphenation Abomination” website.

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    Your solution is elegant. I, however, f you were required to transcribe verbatim — and I think doing so would be necessary only in a legal context — the solution would be, “This is an approximately 40-, 50-year-old woman.” The hyphen indicates a pause for expansion or self-correction.

    I eagerly await the launch of your Hyphenation Abomination blog. 🙂

  • Lee Capraro

    It would be best to say: This is a 40- to 50-year-old woman . . .

  • Mark Nichol

    Correction: The comma indicates a pause for expansion or self-correction.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mark: re: Hyphenation Abomination blog: I will think about it! Unless, of course, one already exists. Not that I know anything about starting a blog.

    In retrospect, as long as I was not transcribing verbatim, I could probably have rearranged the words to read, “This is a woman who is approximately 40 or 50 years old…” This particular surgeon would have been fine with that. And to be truthful, I know that (1) most people who dictate do not remember exactly what they said; when they read the transcribed reports, as long as they make sense and capture the proper intent, they are fine with it; and (2) most of them never read their dictations, they just sign them off and get on with it. I am one of the few anal ones who reads my dictations (yes, that is my other job), but since I often get to transcribe my own dictations, I know it’s all good! 🙂

  • Dale A. Wood

    The five example in the article at all excellent ones. I enjoyed all of them. The original statements were all cases of people hyphening willy-nilly, or in other words, just hyphenating hither-and-yon.
    (I hope that you see the point of my phrasing.)

    In the question that “thebluebird11” asked, I do not see anything wrong with “a 40-to-50-year-old woman”.
    However, the way to do it with a subordinate clause is very appealing, except that so many people nowadays have no idea what a subordinate clause IS.

    Speaking of medical terminology, I looked up a list of neurological diseases at Wikipedia.org, and I found one whose name starts “pseudopseudo” and then the rest of the name of the disease. Wow! No hyphens required.

    In an article on “The longest word in the English language”, the author rightly poiinted out that the prefix “anti” could be used as many times as one desires, such as “antiantiantianti…antianticoagulant”. Try putting “anti” in there one billion times, and there is still room for more.

    The same goes for “counter”, such as in “countercountercounter…counterrevolutionary” and “countercountercounter…counterclockwise”.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: I didn’t say there was anything wrong with all those hyphens in a row; I just don’t like clutter, and 4 hyphens in a row just seems a bit over the top to me. It’s like you can’t even pause for a breath while you’re reading that phrase.
    Also, I don’t think you need to hyphenate hither and yon. It’s like the phrase “here and there,” which requires no hyphens.

  • Susan

    No.4 is a zombie attack.

  • Bernadette Schane

    Can you please tell me which of the following is correct?

    Developed conceptual plans for 14 host-nation-funded projects.
    or
    Developed conceptual plans for 14 host nation-funded projects.

    Thanks!
    B

  • Mark Nichol

    Bernadette:

    “Developed conceptual plans for 14 host-nation-funded projects” is correct. “Developed conceptual plans for 14 host nation-funded projects” is not, unless you substitute an en dash for the hyphen to indicate that host and nation together describe how the projects were funded.

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