Compound Modifiers: Man-Eating Shark or Man Eating Shark?

By Catherine Osborn

The conventional reason for hyphenating words that temporarily work together as a single adjective is to avoid ambiguity.

Generations of young writers and editors have been advised by sadder but wiser colleagues that they should swim well clear of a man-eating shark. On the other hand, a man eating shark is likely to have a bag of chips dripping with salt and vinegar, and if you have the understandable desire to nick one as you saunter by, he seldom has teeth sharp enough to inflict a fatal wound — although there’s a growing school of thought that he’s justified in trying.

It’s sound advice. All the same, The Chicago Manual of Style concedes: “Where no ambiguity could result, as in public welfare administration or graduate student housing, hyphenation is not mandatory…”.

My question is: how often does the context of a sentence really leave room for significant ambiguity?

Consider these sentences.

A surfer was attacked by a man-eating shark near the beach yesterday.

At a restaurant, a man eating shark complimented the chef.

If the hyphen were removed from the first sentence would readers really be confused? Would they think a man eating a shark had either the ingenuity or perverse desire to attack a surfer at the same time?

More likely, it’s the man in the second sentence — eating shark in the grammatically prescribed manner — who is likely to make readers giggle when they recognise the possible ambiguity.

Here’s another example. In my second paragraph above, many writers would jump on sadder but wiser colleagues and hyphenate sadder-but-wiser with manic satisfaction.

Would hyphenation make the sentence more readable? It would take a properly designed survey of actual readers to settle this question (which no prescriptive grammarian is ever likely to do), but hyphenation may sometimes make reading more difficult.

For example, when a compound modifier falls at the end of a line of justified type, it might have to be hyphenated again if it runs onto the next line. An extra hyphen can produce grotesqueries that look like this:

Generations of young writers and editors have been advised by sad-
der-but-wiser colleagues that they should swim well clear of a man-eating shark.

Editing applications provide ways of fixing a bad break, as copy editors call such ill-placed hyphens, but when every compound modifier must be conscientiously hyphenated, this can consume an unconscionable amount of editorial time, with dubious gains for the reader.

Another problem is that many writers are actually confused about what constitutes a compound modifier. Their typical response is to hurl hyphens into the breaches and hope they fall in the right places.

Here are examples that I encounter constantly:

an 80 year-old man

an 80-year-old-man

an 80-year old man

For the record, it should read an 80-year-old man, since man is the noun being described and 80-year-old is the single adjective formed by the preceding words.

Would anyone be substantially confused if the phrase read an 80 year old man?

Writers should think a bit before a rule becomes a knee-jerk response, especially when they’re uncertain of how it should really be applied.

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13 Responses to “Compound Modifiers: Man-Eating Shark or Man Eating Shark?”

  • BJ Muntain

    Except there’s always the problem of consistency. If you use the term man-eating shark to distinguish it from a peaceful shark in paragraph one, then call it a man eating shark in paragraph two when it’s attacked a surfer, it looks sloppy and unprofessional — and may be more confusing because you’ve already established the former spelling.

    The two pieces of advice I would give are:

    1. Find a dictionary and use it. For combinations that do not appear in the dictionary, find a style guide and stick to it. Whether it’s Chicago Manual of Style or a corporation’s in-house style guide, it’s purpose is as much to ensure consistency as correct grammar.

    2. LEARN the rules of hyphenation. It’s a sign of professionalism to know the rules and tools you need.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  • Kathryn

    “Writers should think a bit before a rule becomes a knee-jerk response, especially when they’re uncertain of how it should really be applied. ”

    Brava! Language is not a simple system, and it doesn’t have simple rules. Understanding the purpose of the rule, and thinking about whether it is served in a given instance, is important. . .although that can also become time-consuming.

  • V.V. Denman

    Every time I hyphenate an adjective, I wonder if I should. Thanks for showing me I have some options and can use my own discretion. 🙂

  • Chris O’Byrne

    Should “sadder but wiser” be written as “sadder, but wiser”?

    Unless the client wanted the hyphens included, I would always write it as “an 80 year old man”.

    How about “mid-sentence” or “ex-wife”? I always change those to “mid sentence” and “ex wife”?

    How do other people handle these?

  • Rebecca

    I’ve read 80-year-old man and 80-year old man in text. Thank you for the clarification.

    I have the AP guide but don’t have The Chicago Manual of Style. Is there a significant difference between them?

  • Ken

    Love the opening paragraph….But, if that “man eating shark” is Mike Tyson, then spring well clear of his path.

  • Evelyn

    Love this! Well, there’s always the concern about whether something is supposed to be funny! That man-eating shark could be complimenting the chef, although I don’t think we’re cooked before bitten.

    Points well taken, but, I still think you need to have that hyphen when talking about things that can be misconstrued — especially if you’re a newspaper or advertising person!

  • thebluebird11

    I’m a medical transcriptionist, and we have our “Book of Style” as our guide. For the example above, we leave the hyphens in place (80-year-old man). I understand your point, that leaving the hyphens out would not make it less UNDERSTANDABLE. However, let me say this: It is a fact that as we progress from learning to recognize and read individual alphabet letters, then phonemes, then full words and so on, our eyes do a lot of skimming. Hyphens let you skim. Your eye can see the whole hyphenated phrase as a concept, and your brain will absorb that concept without having to stop on each individual word. The hyphens link the words into a concept, and your mind can understand it faster than if the words were not linked. Otherwise, I think your eye will stop on each word (man. eating. shark.) versus the concept (man-eating. shark.). I agree, however, that in some cases the hyphens would be detrimental (sadder-but-wiser).

  • Catherine Osborn

    I’m really grateful for all the notice people have taken of my modest contribution.

    These answers have given me a lot to think about.

    I’ll try to answer each of your queries as I get a few minutes’ time. I’m answering in no particular order, so don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.

    First Chris: ex- and mid- normally take hyphens because they aren’t actually words on their own; they’re prefixes in the cases you mentioned.

    “Sadder, but wiser” vs “sadder but wiser” is a choice that depends on your rhetorical intentions.

    People often forget that commas (and all the lesser stops, as I would call them) have two functions. One of them is clarifying the grammatical functions of major components in a sentence. But the other is rhetorical — drawing attention to an element so that it gains greater emphasis.

    I won’t go on about this, as there’s another entire blog to be written on the subject. The upshot is that either construction can be useful, depending on your intentions.

    PS My habitual style is British/Irish because Ireland is where I’ve spent the last 35 years of my working life, although I was reared and educated in the US. So I hope North American readers will excuse the British spelling and punctuation. It’s just easier hen I’m trying to write quickly.

    CO

  • Catherine Osborn

    For BJ Muntain: Everything you say sounds like good sense. If only all the experts agreed, it might be possible to “learn the rules” instead of using your own judgement (UK sp).

    Here’s what the Cambridge Guide (Judith Butcher’s, Copy Editing) said way back in 1975 when I first bought it:

    “…some authors have strong views, so ask them before imposing your own system. Introduce hyphens only to avoid ambiguity.”

    Butcher then gives some examples that could have two meanings:

    best known example vs best-known example
    or
    deep blue sea vs deep-blue sea

    Even in a sentence that provided a lot of context, the meaning of these two would have to be clarified if the writer intended a compound modifier. And if you were the copy editor, you might have to ask.

    Despite her unfortunate surname, Butcher is anything but. And this less absolutist approach illustrates one of the basic differences between editorial standards on either side of the Atlantic.

    For a good account of the differences, look for the anthology called The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels from 1990. See the essay called “Editing and its Discontents” by John Gross.

    He argues that the British should become a bit more rigorous and the Americans should learn to relax a little.

    If only…

    Over the last 20 years, in which I have worked in Ireland and California, my experience is that the Irish (who use UK standard) are just plain lazy about mechanics, while the Americans apparently lose a lot of sleep worrying about consistent style. There’s another good sized blog (or two) in this subject alone.

    The one point on which all the published experts seem to agree is the avoidance of ambiguity in the compound modifier. And I suppose my main point is that you can’t do that by rote. You have to think about it.

  • Tony Hearn

    Absolutely not, Chris O’Byrne! (*Makes sign to avert evil*!).

  • Chris O’Byrne

    LOL

    Thanks for the succinct answer, Tony.

    I’ve gone a little too minimalist in my quest for a world free of hyphens. I will now use hyphens when using prefixes such as ex and mid.

    Thanks, Catherine.

  • Nicholas Frankovich

    “A surfer was attacked by a man-eating shark near the beach yesterday.”

    If the hyphen were removed, would readers really be confused?

    No. Only momentarily distracted. A small cost to pay for a line of clean, hyphen free English. Better to make the reader do the work of mentally supplying the logical equivalent of the hyphen than to sully the page with that fussy looking glyph. It spoils the graphic design.

    And if the “a” were removed from the last word of the sentence, would readers really be confused by that? “Yesterdy.” Let it be. “Fixing” it might cause text to reflow, and then you’d have to pay the compositor to do more work. And what exactly would everyone gain from the exercise? Relax.

    OK, I have a theory. If you like math and think writing is primarily a science whose underpinning is a kind of formal logic, you hypyhenate. If you don’t like math and think writing is primarily an art, hyphens — well, you’d rather not. Oh, you’ll concede that in this fallen world we have to let them show their face occasionally, but in your quiet moments you dream of a world where language is freed from the iron constraints of logic-chopping punctuation and we can just float in a sea of txt and yes we say yes we will yes

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