Hyphenation in Compound Nouns

By Mark Nichol

I was reading the jacket copy for Garner’s Modern American Usage, the successor to the similarly titled classic reference work by H.W. Fowler, when I found what I felt to be an ironic instance: an error. The book’s description refers to its attention to “questions . . . of word-choice.”

Whenever I see hyphenated compound nouns such as this, I feel as if I’m being whisked in a time machine to a bygone era in which hyphenation of word pairs was rampant: to-day, co-operate, tea-cup, and so on. Why on earth, I thought, did the copywriter think that word-choice merits hyphenation?

Continuing to read the copy, I stumbled once again, while reading a reference to “language-lovers of all persuasions.” By this time, I thought it unfortunate that a book that purports (with eminent justification) to be a trusted authority on proper usage should have two superfluous hyphens in the jacket copy.

Authors are usually given the opportunity to proof their books, and occasionally have a chance to weigh in on the cover art, but rarely, if ever, do they get to see jacket copy before publication. I wondered whether Garner had noticed these errors when he received his first copy.

Minutes later, I was reading an entry, and I noticed the second error repeated therein: “The word denotes a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur.” This time — assuming the author, while reading the proof, had not overlooked a copy editor’s erroneous insertion — the culprit was Garner himself. Only then did I realize I had fallen into a trap that the English language often lays for the erudite and the inexperienced alike: the expectation that it will be consistent.

The hyphenation of word-choice is unequivocally wrong, but who is to say that Garner and the jacket-copy writer erred with language-lover? Many writers insert a hyphen in “decision making,” “problem solving,” and the like, though such treatment is justified only when the compound modifies a following noun (“decision-making apparatus,” “problem-solving skills”). However, similar noun+verb compounds, like eye-opener, are valid.

The final arbiter of how a word is treated is a dictionary — or, if a publication for some reason prefers an alternate form, a published style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style or a house, or internal, style guide compiled by one or more editors of that publication. In the case of language-lover, the term does not appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, nor does it grace Chicago’s pages.

I don’t know whether the house style guide of the Oxford University Press, which published Garner’s book, covers this point, but now I know why, in that work, a hyphen appears in language-lover: It was published in the United Kingdom, whose form of English (the oldest among nations where English is widely spoken, though that doesn’t make it the definitive form) has only recently begun to veer from favoring such constructions.

An online search for “language lover” yields one hyphen-free usage after another, which confirms my opinion that in American English, at least, the hyphen is extraneous. And a writer’s rule of thumb is that if a term has not made its way into a dictionary, use a corollary form (would you hyphenate “cat lover” or “coffee lover”?) or, in the absence of a similar term, use the simplest possible construction.

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9 Responses to “Hyphenation in Compound Nouns”

  • Sarah Turner

    No-one (that’s no-one not noone) writes cooperate in the UK. It’s always written as co-operate. But I am curious to know why you wrote
    jacket-copy writer. And not jacket copy writer or jacket copywriter?

  • Mark Nichol

    Sarah:

    I speak and write American English, and my posts almost invariably represent that bias, hence my reference to the obsolescence of co-operate. (And we don’t hyphenate no-one.)

    I hyphenated “jacket copy” because that phrase modifies writer. “Jacket copywriter” implies someone who crafts prose to be printed on coats. If I wished to use copywriter, I would say “book-jacket copywriter,” which would also be correct in this context.

  • Nicholas Rose

    I find this discussion very interesting but do not entirely agree. (Bear in mind that I am British.)

    I agree on “word choice” (there should be no hyphen) but disagree on “language-lover” (hyphen required in my opinion).

    Being a translation quality manager by profession, but with no formal training in linguistics, semantics or other relevant specialised fields, I have developed my own rules on the basis of wide reading experience, study of established (British) reference works and the application of logic.

    Applying this approach, I developed the following arguments on this subject:

    Where the main nouns in word pairs can stand alone, either generally or in a context that helps to define them, there is no need for a hyphen. (Examples: roof insulation, steam engine, heart attack and oil well). Thus, if we hear “I’m going to the well today”, as long as we know that the speaker is an oil worker (and not a drawer of water), it is perfectly understood that well means oil well and the terms are interchangeable.

    Hence my agreement on “word choice”.

    However, a fireman’s wife would never describe her husband as a “fighter”, we would not point to the birds gathering on the “table” and we would not leave our car in the “park”. And if we were discussing a watch’s suitability for use while swimming, we would not talk of its “resistance”, even though the context made it clear that resistance to dust or shocks was not being referred to. So in the terms “fire-fighter”, “bird-table”, “car-park”, and “water-resistance” the two nouns are indissociable and therefore require a hyphen.

    This is why I feel that “language-lover” does require a hyphen.

    Incidentally, I heartily agree with Sarah Turner on “no-one” (in preference to the often-used “no one”, which to my mind has a different meaning (e.g “Of the many ideas put forward, no one solution on its own was seen as workable”), and I also favour “co-operate”, though I note that “cooperate” is considered correct in the US and find that it increasingly being used in the UK too (along with coordinate, proofread, etc., etc.) I read somewhere recently that the OED had just published a very long list of words that were previously hyphenated in British English for which the hyphen could (should?) be dropped.

  • Peter

    It was published in the United Kingdom, whose form of English (the oldest among nations where English is widely spoken, though that doesn’t make it the definitive form) has only recently begun to veer from favoring such constructions.

    Not so. American English is very often an older form, long obsolete in British English, which long along “veered from favouring such constructions.” (And sometimes veers back again, under American influence). See the use of “gotten”, for example.

    No-one (that’s no-one not noone) writes cooperate in the UK.

    I beg to differ: “no one” and “cooperate” are the primary spellings listed in the OED. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen “co-operate”, except hyphenated across a line-break…

  • Mary

    What is the correct way of writing one-year-old-child (or two, three, four etc.)? Should it be hyphenated or left as single words, or just the three words (numeral)-year-old hyphenated with child being the noun?

  • Mark Nichol

    Mary:

    The latter, because “one-year-old” modifies child.

  • Nicholas Rose

    In response to Peter:

    I was taught at school (in UK) that hyphens were required where the attachment of prefixes without could modify pronunciation due to vowel combination.

    Hence, co-operate, co-ordinate, no-one, pre-empt, etc.

    However, this was in the 1970s. And I left the UK in 1990. So I appreciate being brought up to date by columns such as this one and probably will start to adopt “cooperate” and coordinate”, though I still resist “no one” (= nobody) for the reason I give above.

    On the question of American English having retained old usage long-since discarded this side of the Atlantic, Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” gives some interesting examples.

  • Nayeli

    I don’t think language-lover should be hyphenated in general, but in the phrase “well-informed language-lover” I think it is very acceptable to hyphenate in order for “well-informed” to modify “a lover of languages” and not just “language”. Not that anyone would interpret it that way, but without the hyphen, the emphasis of how you read it to yourself would make it seem that the language was well-informed, not the lover of the language (an absurdity, of course).

    I have to say hyphenation of compound words in English is completely arbitrary. Sometimes you separate them out into two words, sometimes you put them together, sometimes you separate with a hyphen. All completely just based on the standard of the moment, and language is constantly in flux.

  • Kerri

    This was a great post—very helpful.

    There’s just one error: In the third-last paragraph, you used the word “alternate” when you meant “alternative.”

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