Hyphens, for the most part, have been relieved of their duty to connect prefixes to root words (though many people persist in unnecessarily hyphenating such terms as nonprofit). The primary function of the hyphen now is to indicate the interdependence of words that modify a noun, and many writers remain confused about or ignorant of their application in phrasal adjectives. The following sentences illustrate the types of errors that often occur.
1. That’s a totally played out joke we’ve seen a million times before.
Unless two or more words that modify a noun constitute a standing phrase (such as “real estate” in “My sister is a real estate agent”), those words should be linked with one or more hyphens: “That’s a totally played-out joke we’ve seen a million times before.” (This strategy eliminates the possibility that readers will be confused about the meaning of the sentence, asking themselves, “How is an out joke played?”)
2. Police are seeking stun-gun wielding bandits who robbed beer from a convenience store.
When one of the elements of a phrasal adjective itself is an open compound, as in “stun gun” here, writers sometimes correctly link the words in that compound but neglect to include one between that noun turned adjective and the adjective itself, an omission rectified here: “Police are seeking stun-gun-wielding bandits who robbed beer from a convenience store.” (Again, this form clarifies that the last two words in the phrase “stun-gun-wielding bandits” do not constitute a noun phrase; the sentence is not about the stun-gun subtype of a criminal called a wielding bandit.)
3. During this time, he started developing his man of action persona.
Phrasal adjectives of the noun-preposition-noun form follow the same rule: “During this time, he started developing his man-of-action persona.” (This style compartmentalizes “man of action” into a single idea to aid in quick comprehension.)
4. He was signed to a $10 million a year contract.
When a reference to a large amount of money modifies a noun, the number and the order of magnitude are not hyphenated (“$10 million contract”). However, the value “$10 million” is part of a phrasal adjective here, so it and the other two elements (a and year) must be linked: “He was signed to a $10 million-a-year contract.”
5. His resurrection came with unintended consequences, as is always the case in this sort of it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature morality tale.
When an extended phrasal adjective that consists of a stock statement, as above, is not formatted as a modifying phrase, it cannot easily be identified as such until the reader reaches the end of the sentence, creating a significant obstacle to narrative flow. So that the sentence need not be reread for comprehension, unify the entire phrase: “His resurrection came with unintended consequences, as is always the case in this sort of it’s-not-nice-to-fool-Mother-Nature morality tale.”
In this case, however, because the phrasal adjective consists of a quoted saying, it is easier on the eye to simply frame the statement in quotation marks: “His resurrection came with unintended consequences, as is always the case in this sort of ‘It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature’ morality tale.