Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hyphens and Compound Modifiers

This is from AP. It should be noted that the rules can be a bit wishy washy - for example the hyphen is "optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense." Be warned, however, that there are still a lot of conservative editors out there who believe just the opposite and go overboard on the use of hyphens in compound modifiers.

Please read this through thoroughly and absorb it.

hyphen (-) Hyphens are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words.

Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion. (Small-business owner, but health care center.) See individual entries in this book. If not listed here, use the first listed entry in Webster's New World College Dictionary. (amended example from small-businessman, in line with entry below.)

Some guidelines:

AVOID AMBIGUITY: Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted: The president will speak to small-business men. (Businessmen normally is one word. But the president will speak to small businessmen is unclear.)
Others: He recovered his health. He re-covered the leaky roof.

COMPOUND MODIFIERS: When a compound modifier – two or more words that express a single concept – precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly: a first-quarter touchdown, a bluish-green dress, a full-time job, a well-known man, a better-qualified woman, a know-it-all attitude, a very good time, an easily remembered rule.
Many combinations that are hyphenated before a noun are not hyphenated when they occur after a noun: The team scored in the first quarter. The dress, a bluish green, was attractive on her. She works full time. His attitude suggested that he knew it all.
But when a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb to be, the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion: The man is well-known. The woman is quick-witted. The children are soft-spoken. The play is second-rate.
The principle of using a hyphen to avoid confusion explains why no hyphen is required with very and -ly words. Readers can expect them to modify the word that follows. But if a combination such as little-known man were not hyphenated, the reader could logically be expecting little to be followed by a noun, as in little man. Instead, the reader encountering little known would have to back up mentally and make the compound connection on his own.

TWO-THOUGHT COMPOUNDS: serio-comic, socio-economic.

COMPOUND PROPER NOUNS AND ADJECTIVES: Use a hyphen to designate dual heritage: Italian-American, Mexican-American.
No hyphen, however, for French Canadian or Latin American.

PREFIXES AND SUFFIXES: See prefixes and suffixes, and separate entries for the most frequently used prefixes and suffixes.

AVOID DUPLICATED VOWELS, TRIPLED CONSONANTS: Examples: anti-intellectual, pre-empt, shell-like.

WITH NUMERALS: Use a hyphen to separate figures in odds, ratios, scores, some fractions and some vote tabulations. See examples in entries under these headings.
When large numbers must be spelled out, use a hyphen to connect a word ending in -y to another word: twenty-one, fifty-five, etc.

SUSPENSIVE HYPHENATION: The form: He received a 10- to 20-year sentence in prison.


Anonymous said...

How about a hyphen with the term family owned? Such as family owned business. I find it used both ways in websites online and the dictionary has nothing specific.

Dr. R said...

Well, as I tell my students, I have worked at publications that insist on hyphenating every compound modifier and others that order that the hyphen be rarely used. I fall in the middle ground on this and say use the hyphen if not using it would create confusion. For instance, I saw an example yesterday in which a hyphen was not used in "100 odd students" - meaning about 100 students - but the meaning here sans hypheh says something about the personalities of the the students.

Dr. R