Exceptions for Hyphenating Compound Adjectives

By Maeve Maddox

Sometimes readers ask for posts that would require superhuman powers on my part:

Kindly produce an article containing all the exceptions for hyphenating compound adjectives, with examples.

Hyphenation is not an exact science, and not all style guides agree on the rules. The chief purpose of hyphenating compound adjectives is to avoid ambiguity.

Most modern usage authorities opt for what The Chicago Manual of Style calls “a spare hyphenation style”:

7. Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds
In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.

When Grammar Girl was chided for writing “noise canceling headphones” instead of “noise-canceling headphones,” she pointed out that leaving out the hyphen in that phrase “causes no ambiguity.”

When one of my own readers called my attention to the unhyphenated phrase “19th century standardization of time” in a recent post, I decided to change it to “nineteenth-century standardization of time”—not because I think it ambiguous without a hyphen, but because Chicago is the style guide I’ve chosen for these posts. I failed to note that Chicago offers an analogy for hyphenating nineteenth-century before a noun: fourteenth-century monastery (7.85).

Note: Chicago recommends spelling out numerals below 100, so I must also change 19th to nineteenth. The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, requires the spelling out of numerals ten and below. For AP, 19th century is correct. Still another stylebook,
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation) offers this advice about hyphenating constructions like “nineteenth century standardization”:

As important as hyphens are to clear writing, they can become an annoyance if overused. Avoid adding hyphens when the meaning is clear. Many phrases are so familiar (e.g., high school, twentieth century, one hundred percent) that they can go before a noun without risk of confusing the reader.

Examples:
a high school senior
a twentieth century throwback
one hundred percent correct

Because practice varies, I wouldn’t begin to attempt to list “all the exceptions for hyphenating compound adjectives.”

The best advice I can offer the reader who asked for such a list is this: Choose a style guide and follow its recommendations—advice I shall try to follow more carefully in future posts.

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5 Responses to “Exceptions for Hyphenating Compound Adjectives”

  • GretchenJoanna

    I am glad you are discussing this subject of hyphens, because I have been religious about using them in the way and to the degree I learned in high school, all the while noticing that more and more I seem to be the only person *ever* using hyphens – that is, in the informal writing that is my realm.
    It seems I just haven’t taken the time to think about how these standards change. I need to start consulting a current style guide; thank you for the help.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Writers should keep in mind that the open-source but woefully underfunded Hunspell spell checker used by apps in Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s OS X and Adobe is abysmally stupid when it comes to hyphenation. It considers any two legitimately spelled words also legitimate when joined by a hyphen.

    For instance, “quickly-go” is correctly spelled according to Hunspell despite the fact that in English -ly words (adverbs) are never hyphenated. That’s the worst possible mistake a spelling checker can make, considering a misspelled word as correctly spelled.

    This should not be. Hunspell was developed for Hungarian and may work fine for that language, but it is a disaster for English. Writers should hound Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft until they either adequately fund Hunspell or create something much better.

  • Jim Porter

    I don’t mean to be pig-headed, but I have stopped worrying about proper hyphenation a long time ago. I use it when I think some compound might be confusing without it, or if I want to emphasize something that is so hyphenized.

    So-far-that’s-worked-out-well.

  • venqax

    I am pretty much with Jim Porter. If you are writing commercially, then you need to follow the style dictated by the publication. Fine. But so far as I know the English language does not really have many hard and fast (hard-and-fast) rules about hyphenation. Grammar, spelling, definitions, yes, but hyphens? I don’t know when hyphens even began to appear in writing, or where they came from. Were there hyphens in Beowulf? There are a few cases where they would seem to be required, e.g. certain prefixes. But overall I think it’s safe to use them to clarify, and do just leave them off when clarity doesn’t require them.

  • thebluebird11

    I am with Jim and venqax but I have more than 2 cents to throw in.

    I think that clarity is not the only reason to hyphenate. I think one also needs to consider the actual, I don’t know, “physiology” (?) of reading. I am not a maven on this (yes you can fast-forward to the post on “maven”), and maybe I’m not using the right word there.

    Hyphens seem to serve 2 functions: (1) to link 2 or more words to create one concept, and (2) to separate things to avoid confusion.

    Consider the first case: When an experienced person is reading (and I will use myself as an example), quietly or aloud, their eyes are skimming along, not word by word, but phrase by phrase. How, and how quickly/easily, we perceive phrases (i.e. words that go together to form a concept) often depends on punctuation. A well-placed hyphen does some of your brain’s work for you because it makes 2 (or more) words into one word or at least one concept, allowing your brain to rest for a nanosecond; you don’t have to stop to read it as 2 (or more) separate words, and then in hindsight to figure out that the second word was related to the first one. I think I more quickly absorb the concept of high-school senior vs high school senior. My brain “sees” high-school faster than high school because it “sees” one “word” instead of 2 separate ones. I don’t know if this has been studied (researched).
    By the same token, hyphens that are used to separate things also give your brain a brief rest. We are generally unaccustomed, in English, to see certain letters next to each other. For example, we do not have too many English words (as far as I can tell) where “aa” or “ii” are seen next to each other, at least in the middle of a word (yes there is aardvark and yes there is radii). Also, there are times when there are 3 vowels in a row, and it might make for confusion to the reader’s eyes/brain, for just a nanosecond. In the medical field we have things like intra-articular (vs intraarticular), ilio-inguinal (vs ilioinguinal), pre-eclampsia (vs preeclampsia), etc. Hyphens here are not an issue of clarification; it is more related to immediate comprehension and ease of pronunciation. I’m not talking about a word like “beautiful” where there are also 3 vowels in a row; this is a common word. But scientific words are complex and often long, so breaking up things with a hyphen is not unreasonable (something like 3,4,4,5-tetramethylcyclohexa-2,5-dienone already has some hyphens…maybe needs more LOL…tetramethylWHAT???)

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