7 Types of Hyphenation That May Seem Wrong But Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

You know, of course, that a phrasal adjective, or compound modifier — two or more words that combine to modify a noun — are usually hyphenated to signal that link (only before the noun, however, and not if, as with “income tax” and many other permanent compounds, the open compound is in the dictionary). Even though the relationship often seems obvious, this is language law. Phrasal adjectives, however, aren’t the only grammatical category in which hyphens are required even though they don’t seem necessary. Here are seven others:

1. Job Titles

Some job titles, such as secretary-treasurer, are hyphenated to signal the combined roles. Others, such as secretary-general (the title of the head of the United Nations), retain this form as a holdover from a time when hyphenation of compound nouns was rampant, though technically, general is an adjective modifying secretary (as in the example of president-elect, below). However, this usage is an anomaly: similar terms like “attorney general” and “major general” are open.

Note that the adjective+noun combination “vice president” is open, but some other such compounds are hyphenated (vice-consul) or closed (viceroy).

2. Compound Nouns

A handful of noun compounds stubbornly resist the usual usage evolution of open, hyphenated, and closed (or sometimes open to closed without the hyphenation middleman): The ones I can think of are by-product, life-form, light-year, and mind-set.

Many people treat these artificially preserved throwbacks incorrectly — the first and last compounds are often erroneously closed, and the hyphen is frequently omitted and a letter space inserted in the second and third ones — and why shouldn’t they? Omitting hyphens and treating these words as open or closed compounds doesn’t violate any scientific laws. However, until dictionaries respond to the attainment of a tipping point where most people are writing such terms incorrectly, these words should be hyphenated.

(Light-year may someday be closed, but because the first element of life-form ends with a vowel, it will likely remain hyphenated. On that note, the disinclination to close this type of open compounds affects other terms, such as shape-shifter.)

3. Compound Verbs

When you use two words together to refer to a single action, such as referring to air-conditioning a house, jump-starting a car, or mass-producing a product, a seemingly extraneous hyphen is required. (The same is true regardless of the form of the verb: air-condition and air-conditioned — but “air conditioning.”)

4. Fractions

Hyphens in compound numbers such as twenty-one seem natural, but hyphenation of fractions (one-third) is counterintuitive. How many thirds? One. One is an adjective that modifies the noun third, so why hyphenate them unless they’re linking to modify a noun (“one-third full”)? I don’t make the rules; I just follow them.

5. Homographs

Sometimes, prefixes you’d expect to be closed up to the root word are hyphenated, because closing them up would cause confusion with identical words with distinct meanings. Examples include resign/re-sign, resent/re-sent, and recreation/re-creation. (A rare case of a similar pair with a prefix other than re- is unionized/un-ionized.)

6. Prefixes

Generally, permanent compounds beginning with the prefixes all-, ex-, and self- are hyphenated: Examples include all-around, ex-governor, and self-control. (Selfish and selfless, as well as the unfortunate unselfconscious, are exceptions with self-.)

Some words beginning with co- (co-chair) and pro- (pro-choice) just look wrong closed up and are anomalously hyphenated, as are words in which the last letter of the prefix and the first letter of the root word are the same: anti-intellectual, co-owner, ultra-aggressive.

Words beginning with non- are almost always closed, but occasionally they’re seen hyphenated — and for good reason: “Nonlife-threatening injury” is an awkward treatment. Insert a hyphen when the prefix precedes a hyphenated phrasal adjective.

And why, if we refer to the early or late part of an era, such as a decade or a century (“early 1920s,” “late nineteenth century”), no hyphen is used, but a reference to the middle of a period requires one, as in mid-1970s or mid-century? Consistency would call for referring to “the middle 1970s” or “the middle of the century,” but mid- has replaced this usage.

7. Suffixes

Constructions such as president-elect may seem to be unnecessarily burdened with a hyphen, but they’re equivalent to modified phrases such as daughter-in-law. (Note, though, that such constructions do not include a hyphen when the first element is an open compound, such as in “vice president elect.”)

However, “editor in chief” shed its connective tissue long go without difficulty (though some people still incorrectly hyphenate the phrase), so similar constructions may follow suit. For now, though, go with the flow.

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14 Responses to “7 Types of Hyphenation That May Seem Wrong But Aren’t”

  • Peter

    However, until dictionaries respond to the attainment of a tipping point where most people are writing such terms incorrectly, these words should be hyphenated.

    On the one hand, that’s just silly: dictionaries just print what people do, so if everyone hyphenates because that’s what’s in (your!) dictionary, the dictionary will always show it hyphenated! Ever read Catch-22? 🙂

    On the other hand, you could just get a better dictionary: mine lists “byproduct” and “mindset” in closed form and “life form” and “light year” open.

  • JKB

    I learnt today that third is noun. I was thinking it an adjective. Thank you very much.
    Regards and affection.

  • Dan

    I would argue that secretary–treasurer should use an en dash as opposed to a hyphen.

  • Leif G.S.

    Ah, the cursed hyphen and it’s tripping ways! Thanks for sharing this, I’ve often missed these devilish critters!

  • Liz

    what about “Cooperate” =( No hyphen because we’ve never hyphenated it?

    On #7, would non-life-threatening be the correct way?

    Thank you for this help!

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    Nevertheless, dictionaries do respond to changes in usage.

    “A better dictionary” is a subjective matter, but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the resource of record for many American publishing companies and other organizations that put out publications, spells these words as I indicated. The Oxford English Dictionary, I’m guessing, spells them as you indicated.

  • Mark Nichol

    Liz:

    Actually, until well into the twentieth century, cooperate was hyphenated, and featured an umlaut over the second oco-öperate — to clarify the pronunciation.

    Yes, “a non-life-threatening situation” is the correct treatment.

  • Peter

    Nevertheless, dictionaries do respond to changes in usage.

    Yes, that’s what I said — hence requiring usage follow the dictionary is a “Catch-22” situation, where dictionaries are following the usage which is following the dictionary.

    Actually, until well into the twentieth century, cooperate was hyphenated, and featured an umlaut over the second o — co-öperate — to clarify the pronunciation.

    It’s not an umlaut, it’s a diaeresis mark — looks the same, but the former denotes a change in sound quality and the latter merely denotes the separation of what would otherwise be a single compound vowel (diphthongs, etc.); you shouldn’t see both at once: there’s no need for the diaeresis mark if the hyphen is present — typesetters would write “coöperate” on a line, but “co-[]operate” if it’s split across two lines. Same goes for ‘e-e’ words, like “reëstablish”. I suspect the practice only ended for the same reason French-spacing took over: computers couldn’t cope with it.

  • Precise Edit

    @Dan

    Quoting: I would argue that secretary–treasurer should use an en dash as opposed to a hyphen.

    Not so. You would use an en dash to signal two individual but linked nouns that modify a following noun, e.g., The Bush[en dash]Kennedy education plan.

    This is not the case here. “Secretary” and “Treasurer” are not two separate jobs; with the hyphen, they are one job together.

  • Precise Edit

    @Liz

    Yes. Non-life-threatening

  • John

    Hi Mark

    I like your article, but could you please add that these rules apply to American English? In Australia we use “editor-in-chief”, to name but one exception.

    However, most of our currently-hyphenated phrases are heading towards the ‘open’ format. Lazy/uneducated writers may think they are being less pedantic, but it makes modern editorials a hell of a lot harder to read!

    For example, “The child was still born” instead of “The child was still-born” (or stillborn), or “He re signed his contract” instead of “He re-signed his contract.” (Let’s hope this expression never becomes ‘closed’!)

    John

  • Mark Nichol

    John:

    In these posts, I sometimes note exceptions to American English, but it would be intrusive to always to so and to invariably include a disclaimer that I write, speak, and almost always refer to AE.

  • Dr. Michael W. Ecker

    Sorry, but it will always be editor-in-chief for me.

    On a different topic, I absolutely abhor the American English practice of arbitrarily placing commas and periods within the scope of quotation marks, even when the functional use of the punctuation is for the sentence, not the quote. In computer programming, this arbitrary practice would have print statements that produce foolish results.

    Back to original topic: The British do it more sensibly. When I was editor-in-chief (and never “editor in chief”) of my own publication REC (Recreational & Educational Computing), I was eclectic in picking the best features of English. Given how many people are just ignorant of even the most basic rules, I felt this justified.

    Michael W. Ecker, Ph.D.

  • PE

    In re: the whole “Editor in Chief” discussion, I prefer the hyphens; however, I am not against the non-hyphenated version.

    But if placed against a wall and threatened with _______________ (fill in the blank with something really, really horrible), then I would go WITH the hyphens.

    : )

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