May 25

It takes the hyphenation of millions to hold us back

Punctuation is a battlefield, as ’80s headband enthusiast Pat Benatar never said. And one particularly dangerous weapon of mass disruption is the hyphen, especially when deployed in compound modifiers (descriptive terms comprising two or more words). So, without wishing to get too prescriptivist about things, here are some useful tactics for hyphenation:

  • Generally, in the case of a compound modifier, one should hyphenate. Take this quote, for example: “Baldrick, your brain is like the four-headed man-eating haddock fish-beast of Aberdeen.” “In what way?” “It doesn’t exist…” (Blackadder: the Cavalier Years, 1988)
    Without the hyphens, ‘a four headed man eating haddock fish beast of Aberdeen’ is a tad confusing. Does the man have four heads? Is he eating the haddock fish-beast? The hyphens are there to remove the ambiguity.
  • But be sure to think things through – don’t automatically hyphenate what appears to be a compound modifier. (It could be a trap.) The key is the compound aspect: the two items preceding the thing described combine to form an adjective (or other modifier). So one should write ‘third world war’ when describing a hypothetical global conflict, rather than ‘third-world war’, which would limit the theatre of conflict to emerging markets.
  • Never hyphenate if a compound modifier contains an adverb ending in -ly. Hence highly developed physique, slowly melting icecaps, attractively valued stocks.
  • Be mindful of hyphenated adverbs that could be confused with adjectives when they occur before a noun. So, a well-fed prisoner (as distinct from a well, fed prisoner) but a prisoner who is well fed (or fed well).
  • Hyphenate when noting ages: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” (hirsute physicist Albert Einstein) Although of course a six-year-old is a child who is six years old (no hyphens required, as ’80s percussionist Phil Collins never said).

Duncan Black, 25 May 2013