Should There Be a Hyphen?

By Mark Nichol

Hyphenation rules can seem complicated, leading to confusion for the writer. In the following sentences, determine whether a hyphen is called for in each example, and then read the discussion for an explanatory answer.

1. He was still far back in third place in most polls.

“Third place” is a simple noun phrase that requires no hyphenation. If it were to be a phrasal adjective modifying another word, a hyphen would be called for, as in the sentence “She had to be content with a third-place finish in her best race.”

2. She would have to catch fire to leap frog Smith and Jones in the election.

Many open noun phrases, when used as verbs, are hyphenated, as is the case with “high five,” which as a verb is styled high-five. However, double-check such usage, because some hyphenated verb phrases evolve into closed compounds, and leapfrog is one of these that has done so.

3. Smith is best positioned to inherit voters who were leaning toward Jones.

Here, best is an adverb that modifies the adjective positioned, so the phrase remains open. If the words, combined, modified a noun, the phrase would be hyphenated, as shown in “They agreed that he is the best-positioned candidate.”

4. One of the third party construction contractors was found to be negligent.

Third and party combine to modify the noun phrase “construction contractors,” so the phrasal adjective “third party” should be hyphenated.

5. Regulation must be more forward looking in this rapidly changing environment.

“Forward looking” is a phrasal adjective, but it follows regulation, the noun it modifies, so it is not hyphenated. Also, unlike so-called flat adverbs such as best (see the example with best above), those ending in -ly are never connected to a subsequent adjective with a hyphen.

6. Less than optimal terms can result in future costs that reduce the benefit of a lower purchase price.

Just as most two-word phrasal adjectives are hyphenated before a noun, those with three or more words are connected to represent a unified intent to modify the following noun. However, again, such phrases, regardless of length, are rarely hyphenated after the noun.

7. Wind, solar, hydrothermal, and geothermal energy sources are constituting larger portions of the overall energy pool.

It’s not immediately clear in this sentence that “energy sources,” rather than simply sources, applies to all four terms, and a reader might first be deceived into thinking that energy applies only to geothermal and/or that wind is a stand-alone item in the list. To clarify the relationship between the terms, technically, energy should be attached to each one with a hyphen to constitute four phrasal adjectives referring to sources: “Wind-energy, solar-energy, hydrothermal-energy, and geothermal-energy sources are constituting larger portions of the overall energy pool.” Alternatively, suspensive hyphenation—“Wind-, solar-, hydrothermal-, and geothermal-energy sources are constituting larger portions of the overall energy pool”—could be employed, though it looks awkward when used for more than a couple of terms.

Better yet, to avoid clutter, relax the syntax by starting the sentence with sources: “Sources of wind, solar, hydrothermal, and geothermal energy are constituting larger portions of the overall energy pool.” In this sentence, it’s easier to recognize that energy is implied after each word for a source of energy.

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2 Responses to “Should There Be a Hyphen?”

  • Thebluebird11

    Meh, I don’t like the answer to #5. On first read, my brain read that regulations need to be more forward, looking in this rapidly changing environment. My brain needs to know that the words “forward” and “looking” go together. Not so bad with “rapidly” and “changing,” which, although I would tend to hyphenate, I know the rule about -ly words (learned the rule here at DWT. Not saying I like that rule, but I grudgingly go along with it because you said so!)

  • Oliver Lawrence

    For #5, I agree with the general logic, but in practice it depends on the construct and is always worth looking up: in this case, Oxford disagrees.

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