5 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

The sentences below, each followed by a discussion and a revision, illustrate various ways in which a hyphen is used extraneously.

1. He adds that cities should be forced to follow a federally-defined law pertaining to what kinds of benefits restaurants should be required to provide to their employees.

Because adverbial phrases such as “federally defined” (where the adverb federally modifies the adjective defined, which in turn modifies a noun) so closely resemble adjectival phrases such as “little known” (where the adjectives little and known combine to modify a noun), and phrases in the latter category are usually hyphenated before a noun, adverbial phrases are also often (incorrectly) hyphenated.

Here, as in the case of all adverbial phrases ending in -ly, “federally defined” is not hyphenated: “He adds that cities should be forced to follow a federally defined law pertaining to what kinds of benefits restaurants should be required to provide to their employees.” (However, flat adverbs—those lacking the -ly ending—are hyphenated to an adjective when the adverbial phrase precedes a noun, such as “high ranking.”

2. Most of them are small- and medium-sized cities many people may never have heard of.

Small is followed by a hyphen here as if it constitutes a case of suspended hyphenation, where a repetition (in this case) of sized is implied, but the two elements modifying cities are not “small sized” and “medium sized,” but rather small and “medium sized,” so the hyphen after small is erroneous: “Most of them are small and medium-sized cities many people may never have heard of.”

3. The film was among the highest-grossing that year.

A phrasal adjective is generally not hyphenated when it follows the noun it modifies: “The film was among the highest grossing that year.” (Alternatively, retain the hyphen but insert a synonym for the noun after the phrasal adjective, as in “The film was among the highest-grossing releases that year.”)

4. The developers proposed to phase-in that part of the project over the course of several years.

“Phase in” consists of a verb and a preposition, which have no need of a hyphen to signal their interrelationship: “The developers proposed to phase in that part of the project over the course of several years.” (This error likely exists as a result of a confusion of the phrase with its use as an adjectival phrase, where a hyphen is valid, and as the noun phase-in, similar to built-in.)

5. Jones is a past-president of the organization.

In this sentence, past is an adjective modifying president, and as such, it should not be attached to the word it modifies: “Jones is a past president of the organization.”

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2 Responses to “5 Types of Unnecessary Hyphenation”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note: when the adverbial phrase precedes a noun, such as “high ranking.”
    Adverbial phrases do not precede nouns, but adjectival phrases DO precede nouns.
    Example: “The well-fed and high-ranking racing stallion was admired by all of his fans.”
    Example: “The underfed and overworked donkey was ignored by almost everyone.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note: “This error likely exists as a result of a confusion of the phrase with its use as an adjectival phrase, where a hyphen is valid, and as the noun phase-in, similar to built-in.”
    “Phase-in” is a poor noun, and its use should not be encouraged. Use “a phasing-in procedure”, or “the phasing in of the process”, or “the phasing-in process”.
    “Built-in” is not a noun at all, but it is always an adjective, as in “a built-in kitchen” and “a built-in outhouse”!

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