Chocolate Covered or Chocolate-Covered?

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Knowing when to hyphenate a word and when to write it as two words or as a compound is a difficult concept for me to master.

According to OWL (Purdue’s Online Writing Lab) guidelines, two or more words that serve as a single adjective before a noun, are hyphenated:

one-way street
well-known author
chocolate-covered peanuts

BUT when these compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

Not everyone follows the bit about modifiers before a noun.

A Google search comes up with a lot of things covered in chocolate without the hyphen:

How to Make Homemade Chocolate Covered Cherries


Chocolate Covered Spoons

That’s not to say that I didn’t find hyphenated versions, such as this headline for what seems to me a dubious treat :

Homemade Chocolate-Covered Bacon

In 2007 the Shorter OED made news when the sixth edition dropped the hyphens in 16,000 compounds.

Some of the changes combined formerly hyphenated constructions such as bumble-bee and cry-baby into single words:


Many formerly hyphenated words lost their hyphens and won independence as two separate words:

ice cream
pot belly
hobby horse
pin money
test tube
water bed

These words are nouns, not adjectives, but the hyphen or no hyphen question applies to them. Not every dictionary agrees with the OED.

The practical course for writers is to settle on one dictionary of choice and be consistent.

Like so many other linguistic changes that have occurred in recent times, this dumping of the hyphen has been blamed on internet communications. Texters don’t like to bother with hyphens, so hyphens must go!

So why are we still writing e-mail?

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26 thoughts on “Chocolate Covered or Chocolate-Covered?”

  1. I’m not! I write email.

    Never quite sure about ebook, though.

    Feel sorry for me, please. Now i’ve followed that link, i have to try that recipe. Can i blame you? At least Easter is an excuse.

    Chocolate-covered pretzels made a brief appearance in UK shops, and i liked them, but apparently the buying public as a whole didn’t. 80(

  2. mand,
    While the thought of chocolate-covered bacon does not appeal to me, those chocolate-covered pretzels are something else. Even better are the pretzels covered in yogurt. Yum.

  3. E-mail or email? Per MS, it is hyphenated, but few people follow that one.

    I love your posts. It is nice to know that more than one person cares about the proper use of English.

  4. Maeve, you have addressed something that is, indeed, confusing. I concur w/ your conclusion–be consistent using one good reference.

    In proofreading commercial print pieces, however, it often comes down to customer preference. Some customers are more adamant about whether to include the hyphen or not in a particular instance, even if it doesn’t agree with my reference. Unless it compromises or causes confusion regarding the intended meaning of the sentence or phrase, I don’t attempt to change those customers’ minds. Then it becomes more important to be consistent throughout the printed piece.

    For a long time, I sought the “correct” spelling for “e-mail” and “Web site” since those are words used often on things we print, such as business cards, flyers, and brochures. I am convinced that, eventually, the completely acceptable forms will be “email” and “website,” because of electronic means of communication, as you noted–not only do many writers NOT reread/proofread their e-mail messages before hitting “SEND,” they also do not like typing anything that slows them down, such as hyphens, capital letters, spaces, and commas. It’s sad–all those things contribute to readers’ understanding, and thus to better communication, when used correctly and consistently.

  5. Peter, the OED has it’s place in the library, but I really like my Chambers dictionary.

    Lauri Burkons, if Microsoft says it, I usually go the other way. Except e-mail, as a near-acronym for electronic mail, stands out for me as an arbitrary and ad hoc construct. Technical jargon, that is, that doesn’t follow the rules that would apply to proper English.

    We use iPod without blushing, though this is a trade name that barfs on proper capitalization.

    We never learned to use EM as an acronym for electronic mail, so I guess I will continue with e-mail. But should I hyphenate snail mail into a compound word? And has the USPS taken umbrage over the term “snail mail” as AT&T used to get irate about “Ma Bell”?

  6. @9 mand – Yes, I realize that for texting and Twitter (both of which I don’t do) there is a good reason to use fewer characters. Many times for regular e-mail, though, a little more punctuation would make the meaning clear. Many people write e-mails the way they would talk, but the “hearer” (reader, in this case) doesn’t have the advantage of voice inflection/pauses to understand which words and phrases go together. Capitalization and punctuation do for the written word what vocal change does for the spoken word, in terms of communicating clearly.

  7. I personally eat my bacon with maple syrup… that is THE BEST!
    So, that would make it maple syrup-covered bacon?
    (yes, I am Canadian LOL)

    Ok… thanks for the lesson on hyphenation, I love these writing tips.

  8. … which is strange because the e stands for electronic (no?) and so if I were going to use the long version, I wouldn’t write electronic-mail, so why was it shortened to e-mail?

  9. For a long time, I sought the “correct” spelling for “e-mail” and “Web site”

    I agree with “web site” as two words, but not capitalized; disagree on “e-mail”, though; it’s always been “email” (which is the form that occurs in the­ (pre-2007 hyphen-dropping) OED, btw…so, CC, you can tell your mother she’s wrong)

  10. @11 Grace S. – Of course, i wasn’t meaning that Twitter syntax as-is demonstrates correctness, and i agree with your point about punctuation etc.

    With neologisms we have to decide how to write them, and i don’t feel that we have to defer to a particular authority (whether the OED or anything else); i feel anyone with a good ‘feel’ for language can choose, and by that process of many individuals making a choice, the language itself is making its choice. Correctness changes over the years; i was taught not to type a full stop after Mr and Mrs, but a few decades earlier that would have been incorrect.

    Aesthetics also plays a part in ‘correctness’. (So ‘Whence does this bus come?’ is a wording up with which i would not put!) I opt for email because i find the look of e-mail clumsy, and come to think of it, that’s also largely why i’m not sure how to write ebook – i feel it looks worse, and is possibly less clear, which itself may be simply that it’s less familiar than the term email, but then you have the consistency problem.

    I have a practical consideration too; with arthritis in my fingers i minimise the keystrokes i make, which is my reason for changing recently to ‘ instead of “. (Were i less of a pedant i’d have even happier fingers!)

    And as a poet i play with punctuation as much as sound and sense; a comma can be omitted, but never thoughtlessly. (There i go off on my tangent as usual!)

  11. Being a mostly descriptive publication, the OED is bound to reflect the disintegration of old usage conventions — which, I suppose is more or less in line with the way language actually seems to evolve anyway.

    I was always taught that the hyphenation was predicated on where the modifier is placed (as noted in the post), though I never went on much more than the admonition of my high school English teacher (whose take on usage was decidedly prescriptive). That said, your conclusion about consistency being the key seems like good advice.

  12. i was taught not to type a full stop after Mr and Mrs

    Seriously? I expect this is tied up with the recent popularity of French spacing – it’s no longer possible to tell the difference between periods in the middle of a sentence and full stops that end a sentence, so if you want reasonably-typeset output (i.e., not French spaced) from your computer, you have to drop mid-sentence periods…(?)

  13. @18 Peter – i think it’s an age thing! (Sorry!) I was probably taught Mr. etc at school – can’t remember – but learning to type we were told not to use the full stop. It was part of the ‘block format’ for setting out letters, with no first-line indents, everything (address etc) left-aligned, and so on. For consistency i think the other format, the older one the name of which escapes me, did use the full stop with Mr etc.

    I was at school in the 70s and 80s, and learning to type in the very early 90s – just before everyone had Windows.

  14. Our in-house preferences are “e-mail,” “online,” “e-book,” and “website.” While we will follow the client’s style guide, we prefer these usages if the client has no specific direction. For example, the APA style guide, required by many clients, uses “e-mail,” but also uses “Web site,” which seems outdated, and “Weblog.”

    [I’m still waiting to find “s-mail” and “smail.” Bad pun coming: Is “smail” a scented letter?”]

    We see many hyphen issues in documents we edit. One that seems to confuse many people has to do with people’s ages, as in
    “The four-year-old boy” (hyphens are often left out, or only the second hyphen is used) versus “The boy is four years old.”

    We also see the hyphen missing from such expressions as “The three-year plan required four years to implement.”

    On the other hand, we don’t hyphenate two-word descriptors if the first word ends in -ly, as in “The smartly dressed woman dropped her purse on the newly scrubbed floor.”

    And instead of a hyphen, we use an en dash for two word combos in which one term does not modify the other, such as for joint names, as in “The Smith — Wilson wedding will occur at noon.” (Pretend that the “–” is an en dash.)

  15. The one you ask us to pretend is an en dash is an en dash; the one in the sentence is an em dash…

    The en dash in that usage shouldn’t be spaced, though; “Smith–Wilson”, not “Smith – Wilson”. (In fact, I can’t think of any usage in which en dash should ever be spaced, in English; some languages use a spaced en dash in place of an em dash)

  16. My take on where to put the hyphens is that you generally need them when you’re making up a new expression, but that it makes sense to take a more descriptive view when you’re using an established expression, which means taking into account that some of these tend to be used with hyphens, some without and some either way!

    An expression might be more established because it’s an official term like “mother-in-law”, or because the expression created really derives a new noun rather than describes one referent of the noun . That’s a clunky way to express it, forgive me, but what I mean is that “bumblebee” denotes a creature within a particular subclass of the category bees, whereas “buzzing bee” describes a creature from the category of bees that happens to be buzzing, it doesn’t create a subclass.

    I don’t see any point in resisting this kind of language change – we wouldn’t bother trying to separate expressions like “farewell” or “welcome”, so why try to re-insert hyphens when newer expressions become so common that we no longer need the hyphen to explain what the nouns are doing in that position in a sentence?

    People have mentioned e-mail/email and e-book/ebook. Firstly, email has been around longer than e-books have, so perhaps people are more comfortable with “email” becoming a word in its own right by now, rather than a contraction. Secondly, the phonetics/phonology of “email” lends itself better to treating this as one word, whereas “e-book” tends to be pronounced with two stressed syllables, keeping them separate, so it seems less likely that the hyphen will be lost in this case.

    My point is that it doesn’t make sense to stick fanatically to one set of rules when the changes happen on a case-by-case basis, depending on all sorts of things about the expression involved. In the examples above, I’m suggesting that semantic (bumblebee), contextual/usage (mother-in-law) and phonological factors (email/e-book), can all be important, but not necessarily for the same expressions.

  17. @24. Miriam – Funny, i do write tshirt!

    @22. Gab – I think i agree with you overall. Of course bumblebee has been around longer even than mother-in-law, at least i’d guess so.

    The point about pronunciation of e-book, with two stressed syllables, hadn’t occurred to me and is a good one. 80)

    I’m sure this is an ‘argument’ (of the least agressive kind) that no one will win. ;0)

  18. Email is more often than not written without the hyphen. At least in the UK. Although The Times still uses e-mail. Other electronic things haven’t quite made the jump yet: e-newslettters or eNewsletters, e-shots, e-book or eBook. But I think in time they will.

    The Web and The Internet and now often seen without their caps: web and internet. And Web site is now only one word: website. It’s progress I guess!

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