7 Tips for Using Hyphens with Adjectives

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A team of two or more words that band together to provide detail about a person, place, or thing are called phrasal adjectives, or adjectival phrases. The name’s not important, but it is essential that you employ hyphens to link these tag teams to clarify the relationships between adjectives (and, sometimes, conjunctions) and the nouns they modify. Here are some types of phrasal adjectives:

1. “She’s showing the classic fight or flight reaction.”

What kind of reaction is it? Fight or flight. That’s a single type of reaction, so the phrase “fight or flight” is linked with hyphens to indicate its unity: “She’s showing the classic fight-or-flight reaction.”

2. “Black and white photographs from the 1930s show Nebraskans fueling their Fords at corn-ethanol blend stations.”

Are some photographs black and others white, or are they all black and white? The latter choice is correct, and, because the phrase “black and white” modifies photographs, you should hyphenate the phrase into one string: “Black-and-white photographs from the 1930s show Nebraskans fueling their Fords at corn-ethanol blend stations.”

3. “Check the list of publications below for more nontoxic pest-control information.”

Again, study the connections between words, then fortify the links. The information about pest control isn’t nontoxic; it’s about nontoxic pest control: “Check the list of publications below for more nontoxic-pest-control information.” Better yet, relax the sentence by rephrasing it: “Check the list of publications below for more information about nontoxic pest control.”

4. “He was laid off from his high-tech customer-relationship-management sales-support job.”

If too many hyphenated phrases in one sentence makes it look like a train wreck, again, relax the sentence: “He was laid off from his high tech sales-support job in customer-relationship management.” (“High tech” is in the dictionary as such, so it needs no hyphenation before a noun.)

5. “Our waterworks have reached the classic ‘run to failure’ moment.”

Avoid scare quotes — quotation marks employed to call attention to an unfamiliar phrase — but because the phrase within them here modifies moment, its words should be strung together: “Our waterworks have reached the classic run-to-failure moment.”

6. “The woman can’t see how agents confused her diminutive brother with a 6-foot tall fugitive.”

This sentence describes a tall fugitive with six feet — surely, difficult to confuse with anyone else. Make sure every element in the modifying phrase is attached: “The woman can’t see how agents confused her diminutive brother with a 6-foot-tall fugitive.”

7. “The farmer-turned-land planner is taking on both industrial irrigation and the lawn industry.”

Turns of phrase that include turned to describe a transformation don’t require hyphenation: “The farmer turned land planner is taking on both industrial irrigation and the lawn industry.”

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17 thoughts on “7 Tips for Using Hyphens with Adjectives”

  1. It’s good to make people conscious of the issues, but there are no hard and fast rules about hyphenation and it’s often more subjective than you imply: the more reference books you consult, the more opinions you find.

    Hyphenation, perhaps more than any other aspect of punctuation, is more of an art than a science, and as with any art, fashions change. Many compounds start off as two words, acquire a hyphen and end up as one word (e.g. “today” and “postmodern”), but it’s a gradual process whose speed varies from place to place.

    This link contains a fascinating table comparing the hyphenation of just over a dozen words in Short Oxford 2002, Shorter Oxford 2007 and American Heritage 200 dictionaries:

    Even consistency is hard to achieve. Most people write “self-conscious”, but if you want the negative, most people omit the hyphen and write “unselfconscious” (presumably because unself-conscious and un-self-conscious look worse).

    Some of your suggested hyphens do make the sentence easier to parse, but would anyone really be confused by “black and white photographs” without hyphens and “six-foot tall” with only one?

    On the other hand, “nontoxic” as a single word looks very strange to me; I would hyphenate it (as OED does).

    This is an interesting quote from Geoff Pullum on LanguageLog: . He quotes The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “It is an area where we find a great deal of variation” and goes on to say:

    If you think that nonetheless an answer should be stipulated, then go ahead and make up a stipulation. What The Cambridge Grammar is telling you is that you won’t have any basis for it. You might just as well have stipulated the opposite. Educated usage will not always match your stipulation (thus showing it to be a good one), and it won’t always fail to match.
    There are two general tendencies, though.
    (1) The longer a compound has been in use, the more likely it is to have started being written without a hyphen.
    (2) American English is a bit less likely to favor hyphenating than British English is.

  2. Good info, but if I may pick a small nit, the first sentence should read “A team of two or more words that band together…is called a phrasal adjective, or an adjectival phrase.” Singular subject, singular verb.

    The explanations of hyphen usage were very helpful. Thanks!

  3. Hmmmm….I’m OK with the first 6. That last one, “X-turned-Y,” not so much. I would like to see hyphens there, because as someone who can read well beyond 10th grade level, I don’t read one.word.at.a.time. I absorb phrases, and I want to know what’s coming. The concept of “farmer-turned-land-planner” is something my eyes could absorb, as a linked (hyphenated) phrase, more quickly than if the words just stood unlinked. I am thinking of a similar concept, “X-cum-Y,” often used to describe someone or something that has 2 functions, “wears 2 hats,” so to speak. What is your (all who read this post) opinion of this construction?

  4. Thanks for your this informative article as I so confuses about where to use hyphens, because of that I have made a so many grammatical errors on my final resume and project as well but now I am clear and all because of this article.

  5. I have a bit of an issue with number 7. Does the planner plan to turn a farmer into land? Or to do something with land that the farmer turned? Shouldn’t it be ‘farmer turned land-planner’ …or am I being obtuse?

  6. Cecily:

    Excellent thoughts, but here’s my take:

    The hyphen is perhaps an editor’s greatest nemesis. Hyphens are like stubby little snakes always writhing out of one’s grasp. But one of the cardinal rules of editing is consistency (not a foolish consistency; an authoritative consistency).

    Therefore, “(word) and (word)” phrasal adjectives, when the single adjectives coalesce into a single idea, should always be connected, regardless of the degree of ambiguity. (“A life-and-death situation” is an unequivocal example.)

    Incomplete hyphenation is slovenly: “a six-foot tall man” has a lapel of its collar turned up, and “a six foot tall man” looks like it forgot to tie its shoelaces.

    I agree about unselfconscious, but one has to do something, and no better idea has come along. (Someday, perhaps, selfconscious will be correct, and I will be able to be unselfconscious about its antonym.

    As for nontoxic, Merriam-Webster closes up, oh, 99 percent or so of prefixes, thus freeing up all those hyphens for phrasal adjectives. Merriam-Webster is like unto a god.

  7. Grace:

    If “farmer turned land planner,” sans commas, disturbs you, recast the sentence (though at the expense of conciseness). Technically, for this phrase to be linked correctly, one should employ en dashes, rather than hyphens, to clarify that “land planner” is a single term: farmer(en)turned(en)land planner.”

    Unfortunately, this is a technical precision few people (and not enough writers and editors) are familiar with. Fortunately, in this case it’s wrong, anyway.

  8. @Mark Nichol: Nice post to Cecily. However, your post to Grace hurts my eyes. If there is to be a hyphen (en-dash) anywhere, it would be between LAND and PLANNER, even if you recast the sentence. Those are definitely linked. I agree with Grace on that one, but again, would take it one step—and two hyphens—further, as I posted above. (P.S. I had to make those em-dashes in Word and copy/paste them here; apparently you can’t make em-dashes here).

  9. thebluebird11:

    “Land planner” is an open compound; neither it nor just about any other such combination of terms should be linked with a hyphen. (Life-form is the only one of a handful of curious exceptions that come to mind.) Of course, the term transformed into a phrasal adjective — “land-planning consultant” — is a separate issue.

    Many people erroneously believe that turned constructions require hyphens. Phrases employing that unfortunate Latin equivalent, cum, are hyphenated, but who in their right mind would use that term? The phrase in question (“farmer turned land planner”) calls for neither hyphens nor an en dashes.

  10. Mark, I quite agree about the importance of consistency; unfortunately it is relatively hard to achieve where hyphens are concerned.

    “Nontoxic” makes sense, and I’m not surprised MW is ahead of OED etc; we’ll catch up eventually.

  11. @Mark: I’m not going to say I’m any kind of expert, in spite of whatever credentials I may have. I am going to propose that we agree to disagree. When I read or write, I want to understand and be understood. To me, the CONCEPT of a “farmer-turned-land-planner” is a single, connected concept, and therefore I feel that hyphens make that clearer. If you want to eliminate (most of) the hyphens, make it “He is a farmer who turned into a land-planner.” The minute you eliminate those little words, you need to connect the other words. Kind of like putting an apostrophe when you’ve eliminated some letters. You could certainly write “youre” without the apostrophe, and everyone would understand what you meant. But it snags your eye, holds up the brain, for that extra nanosecond; you do a double-take, maybe have to re-read it. Why make things difficult? I am all for un-cluttering documentation, but not at the expense of crystal clarity and smooth reading. When I think that a reader might get snagged, I try to eliminate the snag. Hence, bi-ped (not biped); co-worker (not coworker). I have gotten hung up on these words, and assume others have too. Is biped (pronounced as one syllable) the past tense of bipe? And if you have coworkers, do you also have sheeporkers?

  12. Interesting discussion. I always maintain that rules are the children of principles. Rules are what we concoct to try to quantify principles – that’s why they cause arguments.

    Surely, the principle is to write in such a way that one cannot be misunderstood and, one could argue, to make one’s writing a pleasure to read, too. With that in mind, play with rules to your heart’s content.

    Nonetheless, there IS a hyphenation rule that I champion. Modern writing uses so many nouns as adjectives that sentences become cluttered; think of things like the “business target shortfall summary report”. Yuk.

    So, here is how I remember the rule for concatenated adjectives:

    A stainless-steel table is a table made from stainless steel.
    A stainless steel table is a steel table that has no stains on it.

    Or, for those who like their rules dressed up in their Sunday best: when a modifier does not modify the subject noun, but the proceding modifier, a hyphen should be used. This is a bad-grammar remedy, NOT a bad grammar remedy.

    Adverbs are exempt from this rule:

    “A happily married couple do not need a hyphen to bind them.”

  13. @Justin: Clear, concise explanation. “Concatenated” is a new word to me; I’ll have to work it into my repertoire. In fact, I’ve always thought my last name (Link) is a bit bland (no reflection on my husband). Perhaps I should change it to Concatenate. 🙂

  14. @Justin, I like your style! Great post. IMHO, best part is the tip about adverbs. Your post should be very helpful to everyone.

  15. I would argue that in the sentence “life-form is the only one of a handful of curious exceptions that come to mind” should, in fact, be “COMES to mind” since you’re really only referring to that one exception.

    What say you?

  16. @Cindy Hochman
    I was about to disagree with you (just to myself) until I re-read the sentence. (Now there’s a fun one: re-read or reread? I prefer the former.) I believe you are correct. …is THE only one… (emphasis mine) changes it. That ‘the’ does make it singular and hence require ‘comes’ instead of ‘come.’ But I’m guessing it was a typo – I’m very strong in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and it amazes me how often I make mistakes when I type, particularly when I’m in a hurry to get an idea down, and equally amazed how long it sometimes takes me to even notice the error, despite proof-reading.

    ‘Biped’ and ‘co-workers’ are my preferences and I definitely take your point about not snagging the brain. However, as things become more commonly used, the brain adapts. It no longer throws me to see words that used to start with the co- prefix now losing the hyphen, although it does still bug me, to some degree, but that only serves to illustrate the point I want to make.
    Children start out learning that water running down your face from your eye is a tear, and wonder how a piece of paper can have a tear in it. Now did you read those two words correctly? In context, our brain is capable of interpreting correctly, so movements towards changing the way we write should be assimilated comfortably with enough exposure.
    It threw me for a moment, to work out what a sheeporker was and I thought pigs… I guess that shows that I split co- words correctly, even when the hyphen isn’t there – I’m adapting.
    @Mark Nichol
    Excellent! Thank you. I’ve been trying to wrap my head further around when to hyphenate and when not, having been out of education for so long that it took me a couple of minutes, yesterday, to work out that running is a verb, not an adjective. (My brain said adjective but wasn’t too happy with that – it took googling to let it grab onto verb as correct and be happy.)
    I have a query, though, if I’m correct, a farmer-cum-land planner is NOT the same thing as a farmer turned land planner, is it? Doesn’t the latter mean they’ve given up farming and become a land planner, while the use of ‘cum’ says they started out as a farmer and have since become a land planner as well, such that now they have two occupations?

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