3 Cases When Hyphenation Doesn’t Help

By Mark Nichol

Writers are often confused by the complexity of hyphenation rules, mistakenly omitting them when their presence would help clarify meaning and inserting them when they’re superfluous. The decision about whether to use them can be further complicated in sentences in which it would be technically correct but aesthetically inadvisable to use them. Three examples, each followed by discussion and revision, demonstrate a few sentences in which recasting a sentence to avoid hyphens is preferable to using them.

1. They can lean toward easier-to-maintain, off-the-shelf server, network, and storage gear.

Hyphenation of the phrasal adjectives “easier to maintain” and “off the shelf,” both of which modify the phrase “server, network, and storage gear” is correct, but the double dose of multiple hyphenation, complicated by the fact that the phrases modify a phrase rather than a single word, clutters the sentence. Relaxing the statement as shown here improves readability: “They can lean toward off-the-shelf server, network, and storage gear that is easier to maintain.”

2. The company’s conversation about buying a brand can evolve into a mergers and acquisitions (M&A)-type dialogue.

Identifying a term’s abbreviation within parentheses immediately after the first reference to the term when the abbreviation will be used in place of the term in subsequent references is standard procedure, but when the term is modified by a word attached to it with a hyphen, the intervening parenthesis is intrusive. Again, sentence relaxation is a simple solution: “The company’s conversation about buying a brand can evolve into a dialogue similar to that regarding mergers and acquisitions (M&A).” (Also, technically, temporarily disregarding the parenthesis, an en dash should replace the hyphen in the original sentence to signal that type is being attached not just to acquisitions but to the entire phrase “mergers and acquisitions”: “The company’s conversation about buying a brand can evolve into a mergers and acquisitions–type dialogue.”)

3. The next step should be to evaluate the effectiveness of existing practices in customer information collection strategies.

Technically, the string of nouns turned adjectives that combine to modify strategies should be hyphenated to signal their teamwork (“The next step should be to evaluate the effectiveness of existing practices in customer-information-collection strategies”), but that three-car train of adjectives can be avoided by relaxing the sentence: “The next step should be to evaluate the effectiveness of existing practices in strategies for collecting customer information.”

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