Here are several questions from DailyWritingTips.com readers about hyphenation, followed by my responses.
1. Please help settle an ongoing debate in my office. We often use the phrase “City of Los Angeles-owned property.” Of the following examples, which, if any, is correct?
a) City of Los Angeles-owned property
b) City of Los Angeles -owned property
c) City of Los Angeles owned property
Of course we could change the wording to something like “property owned by the City of Los Angeles” but that would take the fun out of the debate!
The correct answer is d), “none of the above.” If the reference were generic, “city-owned property” would be correct, but when a phrase that represents a single concept (such as “City of Los Angeles”) is attached to a one-word adjective to form a phrasal adjective that precedes a noun, an en dash is used in place of a hyphen to signal that the entire phrase, not just the final word in it, is being attached to the adjective: “City of Los Angeles–owned property” (not “City of Los Angeles-owned property,” which appears to suggest “Angeles-owned property having to do with the City of Los”).
(Many readers will miss the subtlety of this convention, which is also little known among writers, even those in the journalism and publishing realms — if you see an en dash, thank an editor! — but it observes a useful distinction.)
Even correctly rendered, however, the phrase is cumbersome. Now that the debate has been settled, relax the wording to “property owned by the City of Los Angeles.”
2. I recently wrote a hyphenated word, and the spell-checking program underlined it and took out the hyphen. So I replaced the hyphenated word and made it unhyphenated. To my great surprise, when I did that, the spell-checking program highlighted it again and put the hyphen back in! You say look it up? A very good idea, but if a spell checker can’t make up its mind, can we rely on different dictionaries having the same spellings as each other?
That’s puzzling! But take solace in the fact that spell-checking programs will never prompt you to misspell a word; they just might prompt a variant spelling. And, no, dictionaries don’t always agree on the best variant, but they never lead one astray. Just use a single dictionary (and, if you write for a client or a company, find out which dictionary it prefers).
3. “The less-traveled road” is correct. Is a hyphen required for “the road less traveled”?
No. As is usually the case, the hyphen is omitted when the phrasal adjective follows the noun.