Answers to Questions About Hyphens

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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.

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16 thoughts on “Answers to Questions About Hyphens”

  1. WRONG: “spell-checking programs will never prompt you to misspell a word”
    I have a spell-checker (in Yahoo e-mail) that wants to change “Los Angeles” to “Laos Angles”.

    Furthermore, the same spell-checker does not know anything about the word “gauge”, and it wants to change that one to “gouge” or “gage”. Also, this spell-checker does not have any provision for the user to add words to a personal dictionary. Finally, I have e-mailed that company about its many problems with its spell-checker, but the weenies there steadfastly refuse to do anything about it.

    Las Vegas also becomes Laos Vegas if you are not careful.

  2. Thank you very much, Mr. Nichol:
    “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’.”

    I think that hyphenated phrases such as the original one, above, are not just cumbersome, but they are the products of lazy writers who cannot manage prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses.
    They think that the only way to modify a noun is with an attributive adjective, no matter how many hyphens and dashes it takes, and no matter how awkward it is.

    Decades ago, writers like Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Isaac Asimov, John Steinbeck, Carl Sandburg, and Carl Sagan were nowhere near this lazy.

  3. Great article 🙂 My only nitpick, however, is that you say “Spellcheck will never prompt you to misspell a word.” Please dont tell people this. Word prompts me on an almost daily basis to misspell something or for inappropriate usage, such as prompting a change from “She and I went out” to “she and me.” I could write a book about Word gaffes, they happen so frequently.

  4. Regarding the spell-checker issue – some programs, like Word, allow you to add your spelling/variant to the program’s dictionary so that it doesn’t get flagged in the future. There’s also a way to stop Word from auto-correcting certain words.

    Mark, I also have a question about suspensive hyphenation that I haven’t found an answer for in previous posts. How should I elide “himself” in the phrase “himself or herself”? I learned to give it a hyphen (“him- or herself”), but at work I have to follow AP style, and AP says the hyphen is incorrect (“him or herself”). Which form do you prefer/advocate?

  5. Still not clear on the difference between a hyphen and an en dash– in your first example it looks like you are saying:
    *City of Los Angeles-owned* is wrong, but *City of Los Angeles-owned* is right (even though they are the same, i.e., using one lower-case stroke of the key between the “0” and the “+” to join Los Angeles and owned).

  6. Dragonwielder:

    I would not elide -self in himself when referring to both genders. I recommend the full phrase: “himself or herself.”

  7. I stand by my statement that spell-checking programs will never prompt you to misspell a word. I mean that literally: The programs may be wrong about word choice or grammar, but they don’t lead you astray about spelling.

  8. Karen:

    Note the slight difference in length between the en dash and the hyphen in the quoted phrases at the end of the first paragraph of my response. There’s a visually subtle distinction as well as a sometimes subtle difference in usage.

  9. Long ago I joined this mailing list. I have used many of the emails here as topics for my classes here in China. One of the first things I give my students is the link to the website and explain to them how this site will help them with English. I share the badic English grammar book found here in order to help each student. Of course it is a digital file so they can be directed to site when they first use it. I also share some of the basic writing tips as I go though my lessons. All of which have been helpful in teaching my students. Thanks for the great website.

  10. I recall a time in MS Word’s history (might have been Word 95 or thereabouts), when text set to UK English would get a wavy line under the correctly-spelled word “liaise”, prompting the user to change it to (the incorrect) “liase”. Switching to US English would remove this bizarre behaviour. Thankfully, they have since fixed this, but it’s more evidence against the sweeping statement “spell-checking programs will never prompt you to misspell a word”.

  11. UK English would get a wavy line under the correctly-spelled word “liaise”, prompting the user to change it to (the incorrect) “liase”.
    Ouch. The painful part of that is the notiont that *liaise* is a word at all, properly spelled or otherwise. Does irregardless properly have one R or two? “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”. I think we are working with fuzzy definitions of “correct” regarding correctly-spelled. My spell-check dings me on nuther, but I don’t think it is because I’m spelling it wrong.

    If the program in question zapped *liaise* I would not attribute it to spelling. If it then accepted, *liase*, then I would suspect reference to a rather obscure geological term regarding Jurassic rocks. If the program NOW accepts *liaise* I would not consider that a correction. Or progress.

    Generally I think MN is right that checkers may recommend a different word from what is intended, not to simply spell something incorrectly. E.g. *gage* is a legitimate word. Why the word gauge would not be in the data base suggests a different kind of problem. There could be exceptions, of course. I have started calling my friend Amelia Amoeba because after so many years of wavy red lines I have decidend that SHE must be the one who’s got it wrong.

  12. How should I elide “himself” in the phrase “himself or herself”? The answer is not to elide at all when clumsly a/o unnecessary. Say “himself”. It has been understood to mean EVERYONE for centuries. Centuries! Unless you’re writing a treatise for a feminist-political cell, don’t politicize the language.

  13. Mark Nichol:
    I have a question and I really need your help.
    I understand “low- and high- income” is called suspensive hyphens, but what about this one, found in a science journal’s topic:
    Eating dinner away from home: Perspectives of middle-to high-income parents.
    Notice there is no space between middle and to. I’m really confused here. Is this also a suspensive hyphen?
    Thanks a lot.

  14. Jerry:
    This is a case of suspensive hyphenation lacking the correct letter space after the first hyphen. It should read “middle- to high-income parents.” (Search the site for posts about “suspensive hyphenation” for more details.)

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