7 Tips for Using Suspensive Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

Often, when both items in a pair of hyphenated phrases have a common element, the first instance of that element can be elided, or omitted, without erasing the connection; the incomplete phrase is implied to have the same form as the complete one. However, as shown in these examples, it’s essential to treat the phrases, especially their hyphens, correctly:

1. “The holding pond’s collapse sent more than a billion gallons of arsenic and mercury-laden sludge into the river.”
The sludge was laden with a combination of arsenic and mercury; arsenic was not released separately from mercury-laden sludge. Because laden can serve to team up with both arsenic and mercury, it is omitted from where it might first appear; the phrase “arsenic-laden” is merely implied. A hyphen is attached to arsenic to express the elision: “The holding pond’s collapse sent more than a billion gallons of arsenic- and mercury-laden sludge into the river.”

2. “The company provides small- and medium-size businesses with service and support.”
The hyphen following small implies that “small-size” is the intended construction, but size is not appropriate in association with small: “The company provides small and medium-size businesses with service and support.”

3. “The 1-2 year old wolf is still a baby.”
The confusing adjective string before wolf is meant to express that the animal is either a 1-year-old or a 2-year-old. You can write that an animal is 1-2 years old, but here you must hyphenate the construction “(number)-year-old” to modify the noun that follows.

The correct full form of the sentence would be “The 1-year-old to 2-year-old wolf is still a baby,” but the first instance of “year-old” can be elided: “The 1- to 2-year-old wolf is still a baby.” Note the letter space following 1– — this element has no connection to to, so don’t connect them.

4. “Marc Antony was seen as Cleopatra’s drink-and-love besotted dupe.”
The trainlike coupling of “drink-and-love” makes no grammatical sense. Observers thought of Marc Antony as separately besotted by drink and love, so he was a drink-besotted dope and a love-besotted dope, or, as follows: “Marc Antony was seen as Cleopatra’s drink- and love-besotted dupe.”

5. “The difference between pre- and post-Civil War attitudes was profound.”
The elision of “Civil War” after pre- is correct, but when a prefix or suffix is attached (or implied to attach) to a proper noun or to more than one term, a sturdy en dash is called in to substitute for the little hyphen: “The difference between pre– and post–Civil War attitudes was profound.”

6. “She felt underpaid and -appreciated.”
Though use of suspensive hyphenation in the case of words with otherwise closed prefixes (“The fund was alternately over- and underfunded”) is correct, avoid applying it with closed suffixes: “She felt underpaid and underappreciated.”

7. “The box contained a stack of 3- by 5-inch cards.”
By signals that this sentence does not refer to 3-inch cards and 5-inch cards; this statement is in a separate class. When two dimensions refer to a single object, link the entire phrasal adjective together: “The box contained a stack of 3-by-5-inch cards.”

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7 Responses to “7 Tips for Using Suspensive Hyphenation”

  • Kathryn

    Oh, very helpful, indeed! Thank you, Mark. And I love the switch been dupe and dope in #4!

  • thebluebird11

    I’m ok with most of these as corrected, but the one about the baby wolf is just annoying. I think recasting the sentence would work better, as in, “A wolf that is one to two years old is still a baby.” It is also possible, since I’m not clear on this, that it could be “A wolf that is [only] one or two years old is still a baby,” meaning that even a wolf that is 2 years old (i.e., not yet 3), is still a baby. Alternatively, if you want to use digits, you could say “A wolf that is 1-2 years old is still a baby,” or “A wolf that is 1 to 2 years old is still a baby.” In any case, it avoids the annoying hyphens. Don’t get me wrong, I love hyphens (we did have another post on this recently!) but some people get carried away or misuse them, and in this case, I think that putting the noun (wolf) before the adjective (1-2 years old) makes for better understanding of what is going on in the sentence.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    I must confess that the dupe/dope switch was accidental — and amusing to me, too.

  • ApK

    I thought a hyphen (-) WAS an en dash, and a dash (–) was an em dash.
    I though hyphen and dash were the punctuation names, and en and em dash were the typographical names.

    There is some third thing? What is the difference in form and usage between a hyphen an an en dash?

    ApK

  • Mark Nichol

    ApK:

    Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are three distinct characters with distinct (but occasionally overlapping) functions. See another DailyWritingTips.com contributor’s excellent post explaining their uses and distinctions: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-to-use-dashes.

  • Marty Beaudet

    I agree with all of these, with a couple of caveats. First, since I follow Chicago (CMS) style, I would spell out “one- to two-year-old.” Second, the problem with number 7, while technically correct, is that when it is read aloud it will be misunderstood.

    As for ApK: This is a hyphen (-); this is an en-dash (–) used to link numbers, as well as for uses described above; and this is an em-dash (—), used to set off expressions that interrupt the flow of a sentence, much as parentheses would, but with less “distance” from the basic idea of the sentence.

  • Tyler

    Good article and thank you for the tips.

    I have one point I’d like to bring up, and that is that you have listed the incorrect examples prominently and in bold. To someone skimming the site, this might have the exact opposite effect as what you are aiming for with the article. That is, they might quickly glance over the incorrect examples and assume that they are correct. I think it would be good if you made the correct example more prominent. For example, you might change the section headings to something like
    4. NO: “Marc Antony was seen as Cleopatra’s drink-and-love besotted dupe.”
    YES: “Marc Antony was seen as Cleopatra’s drink- and love-besotted dupe.”
    7. NO: “The box contained a stack of 3- by 5-inch cards.”
    YES: “The box contained a stack of 3-by-5-inch cards.”

    Thanks for the article!

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