Answers to Reader Questions About Hyphens

By Mark Nichol

Questions about hyphens come up often in correspondence from Daily Writing Tips readers. I’ve answered a few of the queries here.

1. Should “higher cost” and “higher earning” be hyphenated in “replace higher cost funding and “repurpose collateral into higher earning assets”?

Yes, to clarify that you’re referring to funding that is higher cost, not cost funding that is higher, and assets that are higher earning, not earning assets that are higher, hyphenate in both cases. (Even though “cost funding” and “earning assets” are not standing phrases, the hyphens help readers avoid being distracted by reading them that way.)

2. I would have expected some nagging [in this post] about the hyphen; would it not be better to have torch-bearer or torchbearer [in place of “torch bearer”]?

You’re right — I used the correct form of torchbearer in my commentary but neglected to notice and note that the tattoo incorrectly styles the word as an open compound. I guess I was distracted.

Treatment of various open compounds with a common element aren’t necessarily consistent: One who bears a torch is a torchbearer, but one who bears a standard is a standard-bearer, and one who bears an ensign (essentially the same as a standard) is an ensign bearer. It’s nearly unbearable.

3. Nice list [of reduplicative doublets]. I’m intrigued some of them are hyphenated and some not. I wonder what the deciding factor is for that.

Good point about the hyphenation; I should have included a note about that. Because English has never had a body that regulates standards, inclusion or exclusion of hyphens in such constructions, as in many other language matters, is arbitrarily — and inconsistently — based on a variety of factors.

4. Given your recent article on possessives, I wanted to write in with a question. There is typically a notice period of thirty, sixty, or ninety days required before an investor is allowed to redeem. How does one state this? I’ve seen it as “ninety days’ notice” (as if the notice belonged to the ninety days) and “ninety days notice.” I typically restate it as “ninety day notice period” to avoid this ambiguity, but then I’m not sure if that should properly be “ninety-day” or if the dash is not needed.

The correct form is “ninety days’ notice” (meaning “notice of ninety days”). The phrase is written in the genitive case, in which a noun modifies another noun, usually in the form of one noun possessing the other (“ninety days notice” is common but incorrect). If you continue to use your alternative phrasing, a hyphen should connect ninety and days — “ninety-day notice period” — but I recommend “ninety days’ notice.”

5. Thanks for the funny signs [link to post]! “Shouldn’t “ill advised’ and ‘well educated’ have been hyphenated in your examples?

Phrasal adjectives such as the ones you mentioned, often hyphenated before a noun, should be styled without a hyphen when they follow the noun. Here’s a post about that particular point; you’ll find more posts about phrasal adjectives by searching for that phrase on this site.

Note: Many Daily Writing Tips readers ask questions about various language issues in the comment field for a post, while others send queries as an email message to the site. We welcome your notes, but please comment rather than email; that way, other site visitors will be able to read your questions and my responses as well as notes from other readers. (I try to answer all specific requests for information or clarification or refer readers to existing applicable content, though sometimes I rely on other readers to weigh in on comments.)

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2 Responses to “Answers to Reader Questions About Hyphens”

  • Christian Nguma

    I truely wish to enhance my command in English, so that when ever I write or speak I will always write correctly.
    Christian Nguma

  • Monte

    Do you think that hyphens are used correctly in this example?

    “You will receive training on the four-, five-, and six-step processes.”

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