A Hyphenation Quiz

By Mark Nichol

Yes, I hype correct hyphenation, but proper treatment of the little line enables clear communication, so on this site, I repeatedly attach importance to the attachment tool. In the following sentences, excessive or insufficient use of hyphens clouds rather than clarifies. Correct the connective calamities below, then check my answer key at the bottom of the page:

1. “The program offers student-directed and student-initiated research- and discovery-based learning opportunities.”

2. “The plan includes accidental death and dismemberment coverage.”

3. “The businessman-turned-candidate spoke about his religious beliefs.”

4. “Maybe the country just doesn’t want a my way or the highway Texan in the White House again.”

5. “Travel to near-space in a 400-foot diameter balloon.”

6. “He all-but-lectured the lawmakers assembled.”

7. “The rainbow flag flew at half-staff to honor Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood-star-and icon to gays who died in March.”

Answers

1. This hyphen-saturated sentence, though technically correct (though to be fair but awkward, the second mention of the word student should be elided), reads better when it is relaxed: “The program, based on research and discovery, allows students to direct and initiate their own learning opportunities.” “Student-directed and -initiated” and “research- and discovery-based” are proper examples of suspensive hyphenation, but the double-suspension string “student-directed and (student)-initiated research- and discovery-based” is excessive.

2. As written, this sentence implies that the coverage is accidental. But the coverage presumably protects against two possibilities: accidental death, and dismemberment, so the phrase “accidental death” should be hyphenated to signal that the constituent words combine to modify coverage, and because the insurance also applies to nondeliberate dismemberment, that word should be preceded by a suspended hyphenation.

However, because no insurance company hyphenates this phrase in its literature, I’m inclined to request, as in the previous example, at least a relaxed rewrite that obviates hyphenation: “The plan includes coverage in case of accidental death and dismemberment.”

3. When the verb turned stands between a word describing a former state and one referring to a current state, unlike as is the case with the similarly employed conjunction cum (“with”), no hyphenation is necessary: “The businessman turned candidate spoke about his religious beliefs.”

4. The word string defining what kind of Texan the subject is must be corralled into one group, either with quotation marks that imply that the sentiment is literally or figuratively stated, or with multiple hyphens: “Maybe the country just doesn’t want a my-way-or-the-highway Texan in the White House again.”

5. This sentence manages two hyphenation errors within its ten-word length. Near is often erroneously attached to the following noun; hyphenation is correct only when near and the following word form a phrasal adjective modifying a third term, as in “near-space tourist travel” (where the open compound “tourist travel” is an noun phrase).

Also, the half-hearted hyphenation that follows implies the existence of an odd item referred to as a diameter balloon; this one apparently has 400 five-toed appendages. The phrase should be revised to correctly reflect that the balloon is 400 feet in diameter: “Travel to near space in a 400-foot-diameter balloon.”

6. The modifying phrase “all but” needs not be attached to the verb, nor do the two words in that phrase require connection: “He all but lectured the lawmakers assembled.”

7. Half-staff, like its synonym half-mast (often erroneously used in nonmaritime contexts), is correctly hyphenated. The hyphenation error occurs later in the sentence, when the writer, confused about how to construct the gloss of Elizabeth Taylor, loses steam near the end. The phrase “Hollywood star and icon to gays,” however, requires no connective tissue: “The rainbow flag flew at half-staff to honor Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood star and icon to gays who died in March.”

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9 Responses to “A Hyphenation Quiz”

  • Thomas Greenbank

    Shouldn’t the last example, referring to Elizabeth Taylor, also have a comma after the word gays? Otherwise, it alludes she was an icon to all the gays who died in March!

  • Friedl

    Surely example 7 requires some sort of modification to remove the implication that Liz Taylor was only an icon to gays who happened to pass away in March?

  • Nancy

    This was helpful. I hadn’t realized that half-staff took a hyphen.

    One question about the seventh example. I recognize that you were focusing on hyphenation, but the sentence is written in a way that suggests Elizabeth was an icon to those gay people who had died in March. Since Ms. Taylor died in March, I assume that phrase refers to her rather than the gays?

  • Oliver Lawrence

    As per Friedl and Nancy, a comma before ‘who’ would help to clarify Liz Taylor’s role in sentence 7.

    By the way, ‘at half mast’ takes no hyphen in the Oxford Dictionary:

    Also, the hyphens in “The businessman-turned-candidate spoke about his religious beliefs” do actually help, because without them, a reader expecting him to turn into his driveway or turn water into wine, or something, after getting as far as “The businessman turned ” will then flounder and have to stop and rewind (never a good thing to make one’s readers do).

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    I agree with Oliver on the “businessman turned candidate”. I would have written: The businessman, turned candidate, spoke about his religious beliefs.

  • Mark Nichol

    In focusing on an obvious error in #7, I overlooked a subtle one. Yes, the sentence should read, “The rainbow flag flew at half-staff to honor Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood-star-and icon to gays, who died in March.” (A comma has been inserted after “gays.”)

    However, for those who disagree about the treatment in #3 of “businessman turned candidate” without hyphenation or parenthetical commas, as far as usage guides go, hyphenation is unnecessary and the insertion of commas is not only awkward but also incorrect.

  • Tom

    In #7 I would place the two words “in March” after half-staff and end with the word “gays”. This allows for dropping the words “who died” which is sort of redundant to half-mast.

  • Peter

    By the way, ‘at half mast’ takes no hyphen in the Oxford Dictionary

    Nor should it — you don’t say “half-mast”, you say “half mast” (the difference is clear in speech). I don’t know how Americans say the odd term “half[-]staff”, never having heard it before.

  • Peter

    Oh, I and I just noticed this: “half-mast (often erroneously used in nonmaritime contexts).” It’s not an error. “Half mast” is the only correct term, in all contexts, throughout the English-speaking world, with the possible exception of the US; “half-staff” isn’t even a recognized term anywhere else, and whether “half-mast” is limited to maritime contexts in American depends on who you listen to.

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