3 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

An extraneous instance of hyphenation occurs in each of the following sentences. Discussion after each example explains the error, and revisions illustrate correct treatment.

1. Those organizations that adapt will be able to excel in the long-term.

Some pairs of words closely associated because they commonly appear together as phrasal adjectives are often unnecessarily hyphenated when they do not serve that grammatical function. Though long and term frequently serve together as a phrasal adjective, as in “long-term goals,” in this sentence, they are an adjective and a noun, respectively, and hyphenating them is an error: “Those organizations that adapt will be able to excel in the long term.”

2. NASA officials recommend viewing the eclipse through specially-made glasses to prevent eye damage.

What is perhaps the most common type of error of intrusive hyphenation is as a result of confusion between phrasal adjectives and phrasal adverbs. When two or more words team up to modify a noun, the modifying terms are usually hyphenated to signal their teamwork, as in “four-legged animals.” (Otherwise, the implication is that the phrase refers to a quartet of animals with legs.)

But when the first word is an adverb ending in -ly, that ending sends an obvious signal that the first word modifies not the noun but the accompanying modifying word, as in “NASA officials recommend viewing the eclipse through specially made glasses to prevent eye damage,” where specially modifies glasses (and, in turn, the two words provide additional information about the glasses.)

However, for the sake of clarity, flat adverbs—those lacking the -ly ending—are hyphenated, as in “high-pitched voice.”

3. After two weeks, it turns out letting strangers in has been the least-troubling part of the experience. . . . There are certainly less-invasive ways to keep packages safe, like lockboxes or shipping to the office.

Similarly, do not hyphenate modifying phrases that start with least or less (or most or more): “After two weeks, it turns out letting strangers in has been the least troubling part of the experience. . . . There are certainly less invasive ways to keep packages safe, like lockboxes or shipping to the office.” However, a phrase beginning with “less than” or “more than” is hyphenated when the string of words provides more information about a noun that follows the phrase: “Less-than-optimal terms can result in future costs that reduce the benefit of a lower purchase price.”

But note that stand-alone phrases beginning with less and the like are sometimes mistakenly hyphenated, as in “Some people were less-than-thrilled to see the giraffe in the indoor pen.” Here, “less than thrilled” is merely describing a reaction, not modifying a noun, so omit the hyphens: “Some people were less than thrilled to see the giraffe in the indoor pen.”

4 Responses to “3 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation”

  • Darlene Caldwell

    Dear D.A. W.
    Why did you use a double asterisk when you had only one thing to clarify or reference? By having nothing else to add or clarify, it made your point seem more important than it actually is.

  • Dale A. Wood

    three-toed ungulates, two-toed pachyderms, six-eyed crustaceans, 16-legged centipedes.
    The Ancient Romans and Greeks did some exaggeration!
    “Centipede” literally means “100 legs”, and “millipede” literally means “1,000 legs”.

  • D.A.W.

    There is a wonderful limerick about superluminal travel. That is something that would inevitably cause distortions in time:
    “There once was a young lady named Bright,
    Whose speed was far faster than light.
    She set out one day,
    In a relative way,
    And she arrived the previous night.”

  • D.A.W.

    The BRITISH are the world’s worst at unnecessary hyphens, and especially with the prefixes “re”, “pre”, “anti”, “de”, “dis”, “mis”, “mini”, “sub”, “super”, and “ultra”.
    These words do not require any hyphens: disinformation, misinformation, rebirth, reentry, preempt, prewar**, antiaircraft, antisubmarine, deplume, deemphasize, submachinegun, miniskirt, ultramicroscope, supersonic, superluminal, etc.
    **Maybe they should just use “antebellum”.

    I do think that they are afraid that people will not get it that antiballistic missile = ABM, antisubmarine warfare = ASW, ultrahigh frequency = UHF, superhigh frequency = SHF, supersonic transport = SST, and so forth.
    It is easy enough that very high frequency = VHF and extremely high frequency = EHF.
    In case you have never heard of it, superluminal means “faster than the speed of light”.

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