5 Examples of the Need for Multiple Hyphenation
Complex and compound phrasal adjectives, in which more than two words unite to modify a noun that follows the phrase, pose a challenge for many writers. How many hyphens are required, and where do they go? These examples demonstrate the proper application of hyphens in such cases.
1. “He broke the 21-year old world record at the tournament.”
Hyphenation errors frequently occur in references to age or duration. In this case, the reference seems to be to an old record of a 21-year nature, but it can mean only that a record that has stood for 21 years has been broken. The record is 21 years old, so those three terms should be hyphenated together: “He broke the 21-year-old world record at the tournament.” (Or, if the number is spelled out, “He broke the twenty-one-year-old world record at the tournament.”)
2. “The project exemplifies his wheeling and dealing ways.”
The ways described involve wheeling and dealing. Because the two verbs are often used in tandem as an idiom referring to underhanded negotiations, they and the intervening conjunction should all be linked: “The project exemplifies his wheeling-and-dealing ways.”
3. “They’re taking a wait and see approach.”
As with “wheeling and dealing,” “wait and see” is an idiom; it means that observers will refrain from interference or deliberation until a catalyzing event occurs. All the words in the phrase should be hyphenated together: “They’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”
4. “He sustained non-life threatening injuries in the accident.”
As styled, the central phrase seems to refer to threatening injuries not associated with life. But the reference applies to injuries that are not threatening to life. Although non would normally be attached directly to a root word (for example, in nonprofit), in this case, because it is associated with the entire phrase “life-threatening injuries,” it is correctly attached to life with a hyphen. But life-threatening is a stock phrasal adjective, and a hyphen should connect those two terms here as well: “He sustained non-life-threatening injuries in the accident.”
5. “The soldiers were injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.”
This sentence implies that the soldiers were injured in a grenade attack that was rocket propelled — meaning that enemy troops themselves were propelled by rockets as they threw grenades. But the weapons were rocket-propelled grenades. Because this phrase modifies attack, grenade is attached to rocket-propelled: “The soldiers were injured in a rocket-propelled-grenade attack.”
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